Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Dianne: When Research Turns Up Nothing – And It’s a Good Thing

Caerleon, Wales -- a Roman amphitheater
It’s tough when you travel to another continent for research and don’t get what you want.

That’s what I thought when my trip to the U.K. this summer didn’t give me the results I expected. My husband had hired a private tour guide to drive me around southern Wales, visiting places related to King Arthur so I could gather information for my MG fantasy series, THE EIGHTH DAY.

The tour guide contacted me by email beforehand, asking specifically what Arthurian sites I wanted to see, but I had none in mind. So I replied that I was looking for inspiration. This research would be applied to a future book in the series, and I was open to ideas.

Ogmore-by-the-Sea, Wales -- a 12th century castle
I thought he was going to take me to 5th century ruins. Instead, he took me to sites that were obviously dated long before or after Arthur’s time – an excavated 1st century Roman fort and amphitheater and the ruins of a 12th century Norman castle. When I asked the guide what connections these had with Arthur, his answers were vague. Legend said that Arthur moved into the fort after the Romans were gone. Legend said that Arthur fought a battle on this plain before Normans built the castle.

But when the guide saw that I was serious enough to hear the truth, he leveled with me. “There are hundreds of places from Scotland to southern England and even into Normandy, France that claim an association with Arthur. Not a single one can be proven. There’s more negative proof than anything else.” He referred me to a book he’d recently read, The Camelot Inquisition by John F. Wake, which I promptly downloaded on my Kindle.

Sadly, I came to the same conclusion as my guide. There’s no credible evidence for a historical King Arthur. In fact there’s a lot of evidence that weighs against him. Most notably: no historians from his time period mention him at all.

Disappointment was followed rather quickly by a feeling of freedom. If Arthur wasn’t real, then I was free to use Arthurian legends however I wanted. I had already been questioned by a copy-editor about the historical accuracy of using the name Arthur Pendragon when Pendragon was associated only with his father Uther until sometime in the 17th century. That caused me some worry … but if there was no historical Arthur, then the historical accuracy of his name isn’t really in question, is it?

If the tour guide had told me in advance he was taking me to the ruins of a Roman amphitheater with only the shakiest connection to Arthurian legend, I might have nixed the trip and gone elsewhere. And that would have been a shame. Because what I thought was nothing was actually full of the potential of everything – including the placement of Arthur’s court in a centuries-old Roman fortress with an amphitheater for his Knights to practice in – if that’s how I choose to write the story.

I told my guide I wanted inspiration, and he delivered what I asked for – just not in the way I expected.

Thursday, September 26, 2013


Last spring, when my editor at Holiday House asked me how I came to write The Misadventures of the Magician’s Dog, I thought I knew how to answer.  The seed of the novel dates back more than a decade, to when a dear friend’s daughter adopted a dog named Anatole.  He in no way lived up to his dignified name:  he was a scruffy mutt who liked to jump the fence and frequently peed on the furniture.  Still, he adored my friend’s daughter—which became very important when she was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes at the age of five.  At a moment when her life was falling apart, he was a best friend who never left her side.  Perhaps for that reason, when she asked me where Anatole lived before he came to her, I explained that he used to belong to a magician and that he could talk and do magic.  After all, isn’t there something magic about a dog who can make a child feel that loved?    

For years after that, I thought about writing a novel about a dog who used to belong to a magician.  But I couldn’t quite figure out the rest of the novel—who would adopt the dog and what would happen next.  And then our country went to war, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the kids of deployed service people:  it seemed to me that these children were carrying an enormous burden, one that they hadn’t chosen and that my own children and their friends knew nothing about.  So I wrote the story of Peter Lubinsky, the son of a deployed air force pilot who adopts a dog that used to belong to a magician.  The dog offers to teach Peter magic so that he can bring his father home—but only if Peter first helps the dog rescue his former master, who has accidentally turned himself into a rock.

This is what I told my editor when she asked about the origins of my book.  However, in reflecting back, I think my answer only skims the surface of why I wrote this particular story—just like most answers to the question of where stories come from only skim the surface.  We write the books we write because of who we are in our deepest cores, because of the questions that drive us, the desires we haven’t resolved.  These are hard issues to talk about—at least for me!—but I think there’s value in understanding a story’s unconscious undercurrents. So I thought I’d use this blog post to try to examine some of the deeper reasons I wrote the novel I wrote.  

In my case, one of my obsessions is the complex nature of love, with all of the push and pull of emotion that accompanies it.  Love isn’t black and white:  it’s full of ambivalence, one moment a source of happiness and well-being; the next, of frustration, anger, hurt.  This is true, I think, regardless of age—but for children in particular, this sort of ambivalence can be very difficult to deal with.  Children whose parents are deployed have more reasons than most to struggle with conflicting emotions.  On one hand, they may adore and even idolize their parents.  On the other, they may also feel fear, betrayal, and anger too at their parents for being gone.  That’s a lot for any child to carry.  Peter’s father is in a wonderful and loving man, and yet he’s also left his children and put himself at risk.  All Peter wants is for his father to come home—but his father would have to be a different person in order to return.  

I’m also obsessed with how anger affects people.  When the dog in my book teaches Peter how to do magic, he tells Peter that power is channeled through strong negative emotions, like anger—and the more magic Peter does, the more angry (and evil!) he’ll become.   When a friend read the first few chapters of an early draft, he wondered if magic done through anger might be too dark for a middle grade novel.  But every instinct in me recoiled from changing this particular aspect of the story.  As every parent can attest, anger is a powerful—and often scary—emotion for kids.  I wanted to write about how anger that isn’t acknowledged can fester, changing everything about how one sees the world. Yet I didn’t want to say anger is “bad.”  In the course of my story, Peter struggles to acknowledge and make peace the anger he feels, to understand that he can be angry with his father and still love him deeply.  This, to me, is the emotional heart of my story, the part of it that matters.

Of course, in writing about Peter’s attempts to reconcile his conflicting emotions about his father, I was really writing about my own struggles to understand love, anger, and the places where those two meet.  I didn’t know this when I wrote my initial draft, but I came to understand it as I revised.  And I think that this understanding helped me to make the choices I needed to make as a writer.
So here’s my advice for writers who are beginning the process of trying to tell their stories.  Write something that excites you:  whatever sort of story it is, just make sure it will keep you glued to your laptop, pouring the pages out.  Have fun, and let your imagination run wild.  But when you revise, go back and find the emotions that are driving your story—the undercurrents that caused you to write this book and no other.  Once you understand your story’s heart, polish it.  Refine it.  Make it true.  Your story’s emotional core may not take up much space in terms of the words in your book, which could be about dinosaurs and talking mice and crazy carnivals (mine is).  But make sure that the words, no matter how few, are right. 

And then send your story out into the world, knowing that it carries with it a little bit of your soul.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Peggy: The origins of SKY JUMPERS

Sky Jumpers began in an airplane in 2009. My family and I were flying home from Disney World, on a day when most of the country was covered in clouds. I sat by the window, staring out at the clouds below us, and imagining how much fun it would be to jump out of the airplane and have the clouds catch me. To slow my fall. (Just for the record: clouds will not slow your fall. I recommend you not trying this just to be sure.) The thoughts of what that would be like if it were possible were so exhilarating, that I couldn’t shake them.

(Now you're really wanting to test the clouds-slowing-your-fall theory, aren't you?)

And since clouds can’t actually catch you (sigh), I started thinking about what properties of air could change that would make it more dense feeling, and to give it enough substance that it would be able to slow the fall of a person jumping into it. And then once that dense air— the deadly Bomb’s Breath— came into existence, I had to figure out what happened to our world that would’ve caused something as big as that to happen to our environment. The answer was bombs large enough to destroy almost everything, without destroying the land itself. The “green” bombs of WWIII came to be.

From there, I had to pick a location for my story to take place. I have always lived in a valley teeming with life and surrounded by towering mountains.

Beautiful, no? I'm kind of in love with my mountains.
They are such a massive force in themselves, and have always made me feel protected. Safe. For my book, I wanted it to take place somewhere open and desolate, since it mirrored how the population of the world was— sparse. So I chose Nebraska. An area that’s as flat and open as I could imagine. But for the Bomb’s Breath to be both an asset and a danger, as well as a strong source of conflict, my characters and the town they lived in needed to be at a higher elevation so they could reach it.

So I thought, what could be a more fascinating and ironic place for a town to thrive, than in one of the giant craters left behind by the very bombs that wiped out most of the population?

The diameter of the crater is ten miles wide from mountaintop to mountaintop, so plenty big enough to house an entire town. And just like the valley I’ve grown up in, the crater that the town of White Rock lives in is teeming with life, and those mountains surrounding them, along with the Bomb’s Breath that covers the crater, gives them a level of protection unparalleled for hundreds and hundreds of miles.

And of course, if they’re somewhere that feels so safe, something has to come along to threaten that safety. And it helps if the only way to counter that threat is by going through something invisible and extremely deadly— the Bomb’s Breath.

Sky Jumpers releases in less than six weeks. I am so excited for readers to be able to experience this world that feels so very real in my head, and that I love so much.

If you would like to learn more about Sky Jumpers (and check out some of the extras), go to peggyeddleman.com.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Kelly: Origins / 45 POUNDS (MORE OR LESS)

45 POUNDS (MORE OR LESS) essentially evolved from a character. I imagined a girl who struggled with her weight and her place in the world. She’s from a typical American family, and by typical I mean atypical. Families today are likely to include step-parents and single parents and gay parents, so I wanted my character’s family to reflect that, too. I envisioned the mother/daughter dynamic to be one of the central conflicts. However, I wanted the main conflict to be within the girl herself. Probably because growing up, most of my conflict was internal.

Here’s where the evolution begins: I have this character, and I feel connected to her. I know her. I've seen her in my classroom, in the park, and in the mirror. But when I started the book around 2005, technology was quite different. In my first draft, my main character spends time in a chat room. (Groan, I know, but hey, it was 2005.) The title of the book was actually her user name: ANN_ONYMOUS. At the time, I thought I was being clever. She felt invisible, and her name, I discovered, was Ann.

My beloved grandmother had recently died, and I’d witnessed her decline from strong matriarch to frail patient needing around-the-clock care. What better way to process those feelings than to have my main character experience them, too? So, in my first draft, Ann’s grandmother suffers a stroke in chapter one, and by chapter three, she’s moved in with the family. It was a chubby-girl-takes-care-of-elderly-grandma story. The more I wrote, the more I fell in love with the characters.

Then I got feedback. A paid critique from an editor at a SCBWI conference commented, “Why should we care about this grandmother who had a stroke? We need to see her first so we can feel Ann’s devastation.” So I start writing back story with Ann and her Gram to get to know them myself. A few years later, I went to Vermont College of Fine Arts, and I got more feedback in workshop. “Does the grandma have to have a stroke? Please don’t tell me she’s going to die. Hasn't that been done already—a lot?” (Keep mind, the feedback isn't verbatim, but that was the gist.) My brilliant advisor, Martine Leavitt, challenged me to ask Ann what she wants. Martine had me write a letter from Ann to her exploring both concrete and abstract desires. That forced me to re-vision the focus of the story.

I spent my second semester at VCFA weeding out old technology, resurrecting a sick grandma, and mining for the heart of the story. The only things that didn’t change were the basic characters. (Well, except for Gram—she got a make-over and a new lease on life.) I revised the manuscript for fourth semester as my creative thesis, and Sara sold it later that year.

Exactly one month from today—on July 11—45 POUNDS (MORE OR LESS) releases from Viking Children’s (Penguin). I can’t wait to introduce you to Ann and her wacky, yet normal, family. I hope you love them as much as I do.  

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Betsy: The Isles of Shoals (Where TIDES Lives)

This is where my imaginary friends live.
No—real people live here, actually, in the real house on White Island, at the Isles of Shoals off the coast of Maine and New Hampshire.  But this house, and this lighthouse, are where the main characters in my first novel, Tides (click the link!), live, too.
I grew up in coastal New Hampshire, and I regularly went fishing and duck hunting at the Shoals with my dad, his best friend, Mike, and Mike’s son Corey (to whom Tides is dedicated).  Then, a few summers ago, I got a job on a tour boat that goes through Portsmouth Harbor to the Isles of Shoals twice a day.
Three-hour tours.  The uniform was a red polo shirt and khakis.  I was basically Gilligan.
My job was actually giving the tour: I would yammer into a microphone about the lighthouses and forts and whatnot in Portsmouth, the history of the area, and I’d tell stories about the many eccentric residents the Shoals have seen over the years.  (Notably: the poet Celia Thaxter and the pirate Blackbeard.  No kidding.)
This is the Oceanic Hotel on Star Island.  Lots of shenanigans in the book take place here, notably a dance put on by the hotel staff for all the islands’ residents.   (Tragically, I don’t think this is a real thing.)  Until recently, you had to be participating in a conference or retreat to stay at the Oceanic, but now I believe they take individual reservations.  Who wants to take me there?
The tower toward the left of this photo belongs to the Shoals Marine Lab on Appledore Island, just across Gosport Harbor from Star.  I always tell people that if I weren’t a writer, I would be a marine biologist or an oceanographer, and I have long wished I had the kind of credentials to get an internship here.  (I don’t think they take creative writers.)  A fictionalized version of the lab is very important in Tides, and that’s all I’m going to say about that.
Of course, Tides is really about selkies, and there are real ones at the Shoals.
Well, real harbor seals.  I suppose whether they’re really selkies is up for debate.  But I like to think so.
Can you see them in this picture?  We couldn’t get any closer to the island because of the underwater rocks (or shoals, hey now!  You may have just learned a new word!), so they are small here.
And just for good measure, another picture of Noah’s grandmother’s house and the White Island light.  Every time I’m away from the Shoals for a while, I start getting afraid that I’ve misremembered everything, that it’s not quite as beautiful as the way I see it in my head.  But it is.  I really do love the Shoals, and one of the things I most wish for Tides is that it will help other people love them, too.  But I’ll have to wait and see what you think about that.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Katie: The Story Behind A Girl Called Problem

I moved to Tanzania, East Africa, a few months after I graduated from college.

Tanzania's there in dark orange--just below the equator.

On paper, my job was to teach writing and English to journalism students at a newly-formed university. The reality was that I did a little bit of teaching and a lot of learning during those two years. I was schooled in the many arts of basic living: washing clothes by hand, carrying water in a bucket on my head, and pounding rice in a giant mortar and pestle. 

Me pounding rice. Yes, I know the glasses look a little silly--it was the 1990s.
I learned what it felt like to have malaria, typhoid and ecoli, and to value life in a place where almost everyone I knew had lost a sibling during childhood to a tropical disease. The most enjoyable lesson came in the form of informal, daily Swahili tutorials on my front porch with Tanzanian kids who congregated to play in the shade of a nearby flamboyant tree.

Within a few months I grew particularly close to one such kid. Like many Tanzanians, Modesta didn’t know her age, but she was probably about twelve when I met her. Every day after school, she scaled papaya and mango trees and sold fruit door to door to help out her mom. 

Modesta in 1999.
Modesta wasn’t afraid to correct my Swahili, and her laughter filled my home. We started spending so much time together, villagers called me “Mama Modesta,” or Modesta’s mother.

The only problem was my visa ran out after two short years. I had to leave Tanzania and, worse, Modesta. She was just graduating from primary school and, because her family was poor, early marriage was a more likely prospect than continued education. As a result, Modesta and I found a private boarding school for her to attend and I arranged to pay for her school fees, but I still moved away broken hearted. 

A picture of Modesta a friend gave me on the day I left Tanzania.
That first year back in the U.S.,  I spent evenings after work reading and writing about life in Tanzania. A couple themes emerged. Modesta, of course, was primary in my mind. I also thought about the unique resilience of the women and girls I met in Tanzania: burdened with hours of house chores, girls sacrificed sleep to study by kerosene lanterns at night; female students at my university courageously banded together and wrote a letter condemning the behavior of a male lecturer who had threatened to fail them unless they slept with him; Modesta’s older sisters dodged marriage proposals so they could continue to work and control their own finances to pay for their younger sisters’ education; and students of mine wrote articles questioning the commonly-held, local belief that poor widows were prone to witchcraft and responsible for societal woes. The determination of these women and girls to improve their quality of life was inspiring. 

One of the many hard-working girls I met in Tanzania.
That first year back, I also did a lot of reading about Tanzania's founding father, Julius Nyerere. The list of corrupt rulers African countries have suffered under is long, but Nyerere’s name belongs on an entirely different list: that of the truly principled. He increased literacy and life expectancy rates in his country; he gave Tanzania a sense of national, rather than tribal, identity (no small feat when you consider its many neighbors who have suffered civil war or conflict between tribes); he attempted bringing his own brand of African socialism to his citizens; and when he retired, he moved back to his rural village to farm, occasionally taking trips to broker major peace deals. 

Nyerere in his home village.
Without realizing it, I was carving out the components of a book: a story set in historic Tanzania during the early presidency of Nyerere about a strong Tanzanian girl, who would face some prejudice but who, through sheer resilience, would not only prevail but would ultimately empower her village by empowering herself. That’s the essence of A Girl Called Problem

Oh, and for the real and far more important story, if you are wondering about Modesta, she’s thriving. Modesta went on to spend high school at an international school in India where my husband and I taught.
Me and Modesta in India--note the glasses upgrade.
After that, she did a gap year volunteering in Tanzania, completed a university degree in Uganda, and now works for an awesome organization called Media for Development International, which makes popular television shows and movies with imbedded development messages, like how to prevent malaria. Modesta has also helped out a lot with my book, providing research support, photographs for the glossary, and footage for this video supplement we made to go with the book. 

Naturally, A Girl Called Problem is dedicated to Modesta. Thanks for reading. If you'd like to learn more about the book, please visit katie-quirk.com.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Erin: Origins / TAKEN

As TAKEN's release date approaches (just barely a month now!), I'm answering the So what's your book about? question more and more often. (Thank goodness for one line pitches.) The ever-popular follow-up question--How did you come up with that idea?--is a bit harder for me to address.

Some stories are born from what if scenarios, while others are sparked by dreams. Some are retellings or re-imaginings of existing literature. And then there are the stories that just seem to fall from the sky, directly into your lap.

TAKEN was one of those stories.

To be honest, the story didn't fall into my lap so much as TAKEN's protagonist, Gray, did. One moment I was revising a separate manuscript, and the next this boy was wandering around my head, fearing his eighteenth birthday for reasons I didn't understand. (Not yet, at least.)

I kept trying to ignore him. I was supposed to be revising. I had a huge list of edits and absolutely no time for distractions. Especially not from a boy who wasn't exactly nice. He wasn't downright mean either, but he was stubborn and impulsive and he kept storming around my head, glaring.

I plowed on with my WIP. He kept lurking. Impatient, relentless. When I paused long enough to listen to him, I realized his harsh edges were the product of a pretty grim situation. He had a huge heart beneath the hostility. He loved his older brother and felt like the lesser of two men beside him because his brother was everything he was not--patient, kind, accommodating. Worse still, it was his brother's eighteenth birthday.

How's that a bad thing?
I'd asked Gray.

He told me no boy in his town made it a day beyond eighteen. They all vanished. Gone in a burst brilliant light. The Heist.

Why? was my next question.

He told me he didn't know. But he wanted to find out.

Suddenly, I wanted the same.

I tried to fight it. Really, I did. I viewed setting aside my nearly complete manuscript to mess around with something new--no matter how tempting and shiny--as procrastination.

Against my better judgment, I opened a new document. After writing a single chapter, I knew I was a goner. Gray's story was my new project. Revisions would have to wait.

With TAKEN, I was incredibly lucky to have Gray walk into my head so fully formed. His voice was crystal clear, and seeing as the novel is written in first person and I'm (shocker) not a boy, this was tremendously helpful in nailing his narration. Gray showed me everything he knew about his world and then I filled in all the pieces he wondered about. We worked to pull back the mysteries surrounding his town together.

I fear I'm starting to sound like a crazy person, referring to Gray as though he's real. But that's the thing about crafting a novel: writers can't help but end up in these intense, intimate relationships with their characters. By the end of a draft our fictional creations feel incredibly realized. We have conversations with them as though they are sitting beside us. We know their deepest fears and greatest dreams. Sometimes I feel like I know Gray better than I know myself. (Which makes zero sense. We are nothing alike.)

Still, I'm glad he started talking to me. I'm even more glad I listened to what he had to say.

Above all, I'm incredibly excited for you to meet him next month. I'd say he's excited as well, but it's not really true. He's got a lot on his plate at the moment. And, well, you'll see...

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Frances: Writing a Novel One Bite at a Time

            For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a novelist.  I wrote my first real short story in third grade:  In my mind’s eye, I can still see the kitchen table where I wrote it, page after page of laborious cursive that miraculously brought my ideas to life.  I wrote a novel as my college thesis, and after college, I got an MFA in fiction writing.  For many years, I wrote nearly every day. 
            And then in my mid-thirties, I got lost.  I had two small children, and I was determined to be the best mother possible.  I was working part-time as an editor; I had a sick family member to take care of; I had a marriage that was slowly starting to fall apart.  Writing got further and further away from me.  And as my friends published award-winning books, won prestigious fellowships, and got impressive teaching jobs, I felt more and more like a failure, which made it increasingly hard to sit down to write.
            Here’s the story of how that changed.  It’s all because I bought yoga lessons at my son’s preschool’s annual auction.
            I bought the yoga lessons because (a) nobody had bid on them; (b) I wanted to support our school financially; and (c) I thought that doing yoga would be a good way to start taking care of myself after years of taking care of other people.  This hypothetically sounded like a good idea—except that when the school auction rolled around again a year later, I still hadn’t used the yoga lessons.  Taking care of myself?  Are you kidding?  I had no idea how to do that.
            So I called the yoga teacher to see if I could give the lessons back to the preschool to be auctioned off again.  She said that she would be happy to donate new lessons to the school, but that she’d love to have me use what I’d bought the year before.  Only she suggested that instead of yoga, I try a new service she was offering:  wellness coaching.  She was very nice on the phone, and I agreed mostly because I didn’t want to be rude and say no.  We scheduled a time to talk about my goals for my life and come up with a plan for me to reach those goals.
            Here’s a short version of the beginning of that conversation:
            Her:  “So Frances, what do you want for yourself long term?  Say, over the next five years?”  (Note:  I’m pretty sure she expected me to say I wanted to exercise more, improve my diet, something like this—I realized later that these were the sorts of issues her clients usually brought to the table.)
            Me:  “Well, I want to publish a book.”
            Her:  “Oh.  Okay.  It’s usually helpful to try to visualize what you want.  Can you tell me what it might look like if you publish a book?”
            Me (trying desperately to think of what it might look like):  “Uhh…”
            Her:  “What does the book look like in your head?”
            Me:  “It’s, umm, green.”  (Yes. This is literally what I said.  This was the ONLY detail I could imagine at that particular moment.)
            It was an inauspicious beginning.  But it turned out that although the wellness coach didn’t know much about writing, she knew everything about how to set goals that you can actually reach.  This was the point she hammered home to me over and over in that initial conversation.  For years, I had been setting goals for myself:  Write every day.  Get an agent.  Publish a book.  Quit my day job.  Heck, why not win some big awards at the same time?  But I didn’t realize how crippling it can be to set big goals that you don’t yet know how to achieve—goals that overwhelm you and inherently reinforce your sense of your own failure.         
            Instead, the wellness coach asked me to set a goal for six months in the future.  “I want to have written a hundred pages of my book,” I said.
            Her:  “Okay, now set a goal for three months from now.”
            Me:  “I want to know what my novel will be about.  I want to have forty pages written.”
            Her:  “Now set a goal for one month from now.”
            Me:  “I want to have fifteen pages written.  I want to be writing on regular basis every week.”
            Her:  “Okay, now, what sort of realistic goals can you set for this week in order to meet that one-month goal?”
            Me:  “Well, I could try to have five pages written.”
            Her:  “So what would it take for you to do that?” 
            Me:  “I’d have to write maybe three times this week.  For at least an hour each time.”
            Her:  “What sort of obstacles might keep you from doing that?”
            I listed the obstacles.  There were a lot.  I remember that one was that my desk chair hurt my back—so she suggested that getting a new chair might be one of my goals for the week.  I also said that I was spending way too much time reading the news.  So we decided that for some very specific parts of the week—one day and two evenings, I think—I wouldn’t allow myself to go online.  By the end of the session, I had a list of my goals, a list of the potential obstacles, and a list of my strategies for overcoming those obstacles.  I also had an appointment to talk to her again the following week.
            And within a year, I had completed a draft of the The Misadventures of the Magician’s Dog, which will be coming out this fall from Holiday House.
            I wanted to share this story because I think too often we make the mistake of setting goals for ourselves that we can’t realistically achieve.  We read about a writer who produces 5000 words a day, and think:  I should be able to do that!  A friend tells us she’s publishing her fifth book in five years, and we think:  I could have done that if I’d just worked harder! 
            It may be helpful to dream big, but to reach those big dreams, we often have to think small, setting goals for today and tomorrow, and recognizing the often prosaic or mundane barriers that may stop us from getting what we want.  For instance, when I was working with my wellness coach, I realized that one of the things stopping me from finishing my novel was the self-critical voice in my head that belittled my efforts when I sat down to write.  I was comparing my first draft to all the wonderful children’s books I’d ever read and thinking mine was never going to be that good.  I needed a strategy to deal with that self-criticism, and I came up with one.  I decided that it was my job to love my book, imperfections and all, just like I loved my children even when their diapers were dirty or they were crying in the middle of the night.  And just saying this to myself every time I sat down to write helped turn off that self-critical voice long enough that I could move forward.
            So the following is my advice to writers who are struggling to reach their visions:
1.      Know what you want.  Figure out your “dream” as clearly as you can. The more you can see where you’re headed, the more likely you are to get there.
2.      Set goals based on reasonable time increments.  Figure out what you want to have accomplished in six months, three months, and one month.  Then figure out what you want to accomplish this week in order to move toward those goals.
3.      Be specific and realistic.  Maybe your goal is to write for ten minutes a day for three days this week.  Maybe your goal is to write for an hour on Sunday.  If you know you’re struggling to make yourself write at all, don’t start off planning to write for three hours a day every day.
4.      Figure out the obstacles that may stop you.  Come up with strategies to overcome these obstacles.  And if you don’t meet your goals at the end the week, don’t beat yourself up.  Figure out what stopped you and come up with new strategies.
5.      Be proud of reaching your own goals.  Don’t compare yourself to everybody else.  Maybe you have three pages and somebody else has a six-figure advance.  It doesn’t matter.  You’re on your own path:  you’ve figured out what you want to achieve, and when you do it, congratulate yourself.  Few of us are lucky enough to have others who will cheerlead our daily efforts and spur us on.  So learn to be your own cheerleader, noting when you’ve created small changes in your life, because large changes are always born of the small ones.  That six-figure advance?  Well, that writer started with three pages too.
And here’s one more thing: ask for help without shame.  Set up a writing group if you can, structuring it in the way that will best enable you reach your goals.  Maybe you need to turn in pages to others to read on a regular basis.  Maybe you need weekly writing dates at a café or library.  Or maybe you just need to report back to someone on your progress, so that you feel accountable for actually doing what you’ve said you want to do.  For instance, when I decided I was ready to start writing every day, I found two other writers who had the same goal.  We set it up that each evening we would email each other how much we’d written that day.  Now I write every day without this sort of support, but I needed it when I was changing habits.  If you can’t find a writing group, or if having a writing group isn’t helping you enough, consider hiring someone like a wellness coach. 
Seizing control of your writing—and your life—is never easy, but breaking your goals into small steps can make change more manageable.  When I think about writing, I often think about the old saying:
Question:  How do you eat an elephant? 
Answer:  One bite at a time.
No one knows who first said that quote, but I’m convinced it must have been a novelist.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Sara: WriteOnCon's Perfect Your Pitch workshop: The Short Synopsis

The most important part of a query is the book pitch.  I tend to skip over any biographical information until I have read the short synopsis.  When I read a query I want to know quickly if I want to read the book.  That is it.  I will look at your credits/ MFA/ hobbies, if I like your pitch. Here are my thoughts on what you need to do to with your pitch to get a request:


Setting up the story will mean revealing much of the plot—but not every single thing that happens on every page. (And, please do not reveal the entire plot in the email subject heading which is alarming.)

The hook gets to the heart of the book.  It is what makes me want to pick up a book and what keep me reading. What will connect me to this story.

People often think of hooks as gimmicks—but a gimmick won’t keep a story together, won’t make someone keep reading.

Who is this story about? What is his or her conflict? What is the main conflict of the book?

If a pitch is all about the character or all about the set up/ world, but not about what happens to the character in that world, it is not telling us enough to keep reading.

Often queries get very specific about the genre and audience, and this is fine, as long as you do not veer into marketing or get too specific, such as all 13 year old swimmers will want to read this or picking an age range that does not make sense for a market such as 2nd grade- 12th grade.

If there is a Sci-fi twist or it is dystopian or a fantasy, I think it can work well to set that up for the reader upfront.

I do want to know the age of the character, as in both MG and YA this is hugely important for the markets, and I want to know that you know your audience.

TONE and VOICE are extras, but are usually present in the best queries. If I can get a sense of the tone of the book and the voice from description, that is a plus.  That is not to say queries for humorous books should be funny, but I hope for a line or two in there that shows me that the book is funny.


Reread your query, get others to read it (especially people who have not yet read your book), read it out loud.  I am reading at least 30 queries a day, like most agents, and if I have to reread a sentence more than once, I get frustrated and I get disinterested.  Many do not make any sense at all.

It has taken me years to be able to truly write a pitch well.  Practice! I do not think writing a great query letter correlates to being a great writer.

Bad queries are for the most part the companions to bad books.  They are for books that are too long for a human to want to read, 600k words or so, are for the first book in a series of 20 volumes, are for a picture book about cocaine use, stories for all ages, etc.

The tragedy is bad queries for good books: queries that are confusing and sell a great book short because an agent tunes out. 

This is not easy.  But even if your story is about a vampire or zombie or fairy and the market feels flooded with those stories, you have to fight for your book.  This does not mean telling me how much better your story is than the bestselling series about the above. This means writing a synopsis that will show me that this character and this world are different than what I have seen before.

This is about bringing all the above elements together.  The best pitches are short and sweet. They tell me the most important details about a character to make me want to know more, introduce the main conflict right off the bat, have a unique hook.

You want to tell me enough about the book that I have a sense of what it is, but you also want to leave me wanting more.  Check out book jackets, these are slightly different than pitches, but are a great learning tool.

And it is worth saying again, if query letters and synopses are not your strong point, that is OK. It is a learned skill for most of us.  If you struggle with it, keep practicing, and keep it simple. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013


I'll admit it: my book's got some odd things going on. My main character, James, quotes Walt Whitman to cheer himself up. He hugs trees, literally. And not because he's environmentally minded. He also talks to an imaginary pigeon therapist.
Named Dr. Bird.
Yes, it's not just some cool name for a DJ or a birdwatching forum username. Dr. Bird is a pigeon, in James's head. A pigeon that James knows is just part of his own mind, but one that still provides wisdom and perspective. It's the one aspect of my book that gets the most bird-like reaction from people. (You can already see it, that little "Oh really?" head tilt.)
An imaginary pigeon therapist? Oh really?

You might think the story, the crisis, would be the best allure. But no, a character that talks to a pigeon to deal with anxiety and depression becomes immediately more fascinating.
Writing a novel about a kid suffering suffering from mental health issues was not something I expected to do. But then I struck up a profound friendship with author Matthew Quick (The Silver Linings Playbook, Sorta Like a Rock Star, Boy21, and Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock). We lived in the same town and began having coffee once a week. Eventually, we started planning a novel with interwoven narratives. The goal: give readers a great, emotional story that shows how things can be better even when they are awful now. This was a big promise to make, especially since things can be awful for teenagers suffering from mental health issues or environmental issues like abuse; but Matt and I both believe that a book can put a hand out and pull a person through a bad day.
A variety of things prevented Matt and I from getting far beyond the initial first chapters, but I'd been struck by all the possibilities of a character named James who recites Whitman and talks to an imaginary pigeon to help cope.
I became absorbed. I had to write a book that made me laugh, and one that let other people laugh and feel a little bit better about the possibilities of the world. I didn't want to write about a character who was caught in muck on page one and only frees himself from the sludge late in the book. Mainly because I would not enjoy writing a book with such a grim density. I wanted to show the highs and lows of life, how one day we can be joyful and miserable. I wanted to spend time with a character that found things -- Whitman, Dr. Bird, poetry, photography -- that helped him get through a rough time of his life.
When I finished the novel after three months of intense writing, I feared showing it to anyone. I didn't think it was a project I was meant to publish. I didn't even show Matt the manuscript.
Worse, that autumn I fell into an extended depression that affected a my home life and my friendships. Due to poor communication and self-isolation, Matt and I didn't speak for just over a year.
I didn't hang out with my book, either. I let Dr. Bird sit for a year; then I re-read it and found James and Dr. Bird and Jorie were characters that I could share with others. They were sufferers and survivors. They were funny and real. They could reach out and pull someone through one bad day.
I worked hard to get the novel ready and when Sara found the perfect editor for it, I was elated. More importantly, a few months later, Matt and I reconnected and repaired our friendship. We acknowledged the things we'd done poorly and how our mutual acquaintance, depression, exacerbated issues. We acknowledged the importance of communication and of having friends that understand how it can be difficult to be a good friend sometimes.
During our time apart, we both wrote books that sprang from our initial joint project. Dr. Bird will be released in about two weeks. Matt's Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock releases in August. They are different books, but threads still unite them.
And my goal has become clear: tell great, funny, emotional, profound stories that hold out a hand (or wing).

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Megan: Mentor Texts - A Wrinkle in Time

English teachers call them mentor texts. These are books that can be used to teach a specific writing lesson or skill. Writers often use mentor texts, even if they don’t know the term. While student writers use mentor texts often to start a project, professional writers are likely to find them more useful in the revision stage, so as not to become unduly influenced by the work. I know writers who won’t read books on similar themes or topics when they are drafting -- some won’t even read other fiction as they work on their novels. But, when revising, a mentor text can help you to see your own work in a new way and provide possible solutions in tricky spots.

I found myself turning to a number of mentor texts as I wrote my Middle Grade novel The Water Castle. In the novel, three kids are searching for the Fountain of Youth, each for his or her own reason. I leave it purposefully ambiguous as to whether they find it, or if there is an actual scientific reason for the strange things to happen in the town. In order for this approach to be successful, the magical and scientific explanations both needed to be believable, and thus I needed to have a plausible scientific explanation. How, I wondered, can you introduce complex scientific content without breaking your narrative to sound like a textbook has been inserted?

Re-reading A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle became a touchstone in my writing process. I first read L’Engle’s classic novel as a child, probably third or fourth grade. I was thrilled to find a book with a character who shared my name, especially a smart girl, especially a girl who got to meet a boy like Calvin (oh, Calvin!) The ins and outs of how Meg, her brother Charles Wallace, and Calvin travelled was less interesting to me than the world’s they visited. My lasting memory of the book is of the street in Camazotz with all the children bouncing the ball in the same rhythm.

While my memories of the book were fond, I might never have revisited it as a writer if it weren’t for a group of middle school readers. As a middle school librarian, I run a book club, and the students chose to read A Wrinkle in Time last year -- just as I was working on revisions with my editor, Mary Kate Catellani at Walker Books. She was pushing me for more clarity around the scientific aspect of the book, and I was really struggling. A Wrinkle In Time helped to solve my problem.

In the book, Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin “tesser” -- essentially jumping through time and space. We’re talking quantum physics here. The concept is explained to Meg by Charles Wallace and Mrs. Whatsit -- two bonafide geniuses. Meg serves as our proxy, and her understanding is the key to ours. So, first L’Engle has Mrs. Whatsit explain the tesseract in a very basic way: imagine an ant travelling along Mrs. Who’s skirt, if she folds the fabric, the ant gets to the new location in a much shorter amount of time than if the skirt were flat. Now imagine the skirt is time, and there’s a wrinkle in it. Okay, that makes a bit of sense. But Meg, and through her the reader, knows that there’s more to it. More explanations ensue, accompanied by sketches. Eventually, Meg exclaims, “I got it! For just a moment I got it! I can’t possibly explain it now, but there for a second, I saw it!”  In my case, the kids need to figure out the mystery themselves, but, L’Engle’s example let me realize my characters could be uncertain in their understanding, too.

A Wrinkle in Time worked as a mentor text for me in a more philosophical sense as well. L’Engle famously stated “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups then you write it for children.” A Wrinkle In Time is indeed a difficult book. In addition to the science, it tackles difficult themes such as individuality, totalitarianism, and the fallibility of parents. Her example provided me reassurance as I worked through my own take on challenging themes including the lure of immortality and the line between science and magic. As writers’ for children, we can take L’Engle’s work as a reminder not to shy away from these types of big themes. They can handle it, as 50 years’ worth of children can attest.
 For your enjoyment: A Wrinkle In Time in 90 Seconds!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Michael: 5 Tips for School Visits

I’ve been doing school visits fairly regularly since my first middle grade novel, Plunked, came out last March. I’ve flown down to Texas, AmTrekked to Virginia, taken the G to Carroll Gardens, rolled into Newark in a tricked out SUV, you name it. In addition to gaining quite a few frequent-flyer miles and a new appreciation for the Palisades Parkway, I’ve actually managed to learn a few things along the way. Here’s are five lessons that have helped me become a better (and saner) presenter.

1) Interactivity works. There are times when you stand up in front of a classroom or auditorium and think: Uh oh. The students might be staring at you glassy eyed and zoned out. They might be looking at everything except you and fidgeting with enough chaotic energy to power a small city. They might, occasionally, be glaring at you with expressions shifting between distrust and outright hostility. I've found one thing that works in all of those cases: Asking them questions.

I try to involve the students early and often in my presentations. I am dyslexic and spent a second year in second grade, rereading the same few Dick & Jane books over and over again. Instead of explaining what a Dick & Jane book is, I ask if anyone knows. Interestingly, many of them do. The same goes for Dungeons & Dragons (the first books I read independently). As a bonus, the kids' definitions of both are often pretty funny.

In general, instead of giving examples, I like to ask for them. Instead of telling a story, I like to ask for volunteers to help me create one. The transformation can be remarkable, from a few half-raised hands at the start to a roomful of kids pumping their hands upwards as if they’re trying to touch the ceiling.

2) Embarrass yourself!

Another great icebreaker is humor. Specifically, humor at my expense. I like to show one of my old school photos near the start of the presentation. It lets them know that I don’t take myself too seriously and never have been able to dress myself. In addition to getting them laughing, it levels the power dynamic a little and makes them more comfortable talking to me.

3) PowerPoint is your friend. I shied away from using any sort of AV component in my early school visits. I had visions of technical difficulties dancing in my head and was concerned that technology would create a barrier between me and the audience. I was wrong about that. So very wrong.

Using PowerPoint, or a similar program, to illustrate your talk allows you to do more than just project mortifying middle school pictures of yourself in comically large proportions. It adds another element to your presentation and, just as important, gives it structure. Clicking onto the next image, watching the little video, whatever it is, it allows you to reset things, to proceed neatly and sequentially to the next point. It provides a framework that the students grasp immediately.

It's also unobtrusive. I used to pass around old Super Bowl press passes from my sportswriting days. I thought it would be fun: Show and Tell! Instead, it was a distraction. Kids were handing them the wrong way, looking over each other’s shoulders, grabbing. Now I show a picture of me standing next to an NFL player, and then a Sports Illustrated Kids cover story I wrote. They look at it, get the point, and we move on. The sports fans think it’s cool; the others aren’t unduly bored.

From a technical perspective, I bring my own laptop and adapters, and every school I’ve been to so far—from inner cities to small towns—has been able to provide the rest.

4) Memorize it! It really, really helps if you memorize your presentation. (The PowerPoint pictures are great helpers/placeholders.) In fact, you should have it memorized well enough that you can make adjustments on the fly without losing your place.

I learned this lesson back when I did standup comedy, and it is the same with school visits (though, thankfully, without a two-drink minimum). If students see you reading, they will tune out. It’s amazing how quickly it happens. I carry a printout with me (or leave it on the podium, if I’m using one), in case I lose my place. As soon as I look down at it—within seconds!—I hear kids start to fidget and sometimes whisper. I can hear myself losing them! As important as it is to engage them early, it is just as important to keep them engaged.

The picture above is from a visit to Arlington, VA. Note: There's a dinosaur on the screen and no paper in my hand. Also, note that there are several hands up and I haven't asked a question. They were just waiting for the next one.

5) They are awesome! School visits used to make me nervous beforehand and leave me exhausted afterward. That is because I was doing them wrong. My visits were loosely structured, semi-memorized, and a bit chaotic. They consisted too much of me talking, too little of me listening, and didn’t have nearly enough funny pictures. Now they are more entertaining and informative for the students (and for me), and I can do three in a day without anyone yelling “Clear!” and slapping electrified paddles to my chest.

Obviously, every author is going to have his or her own style and approach. But these are the things that have worked for me. Involving the students, keeping their attention, knowing what the heck I’m going to say next and having some interesting way to illustrate the point . . . That’s what I learned in middle school last year.