Saturday, May 28, 2011

Summer Reading...and Writing

Summer books and catalogues, travel articles, barbeque recipes, lists of best sellers-for-the-beach, screens filled with free downloads for your I-pad or kindle...our choices are many. But for a children's writer one of my favorite summer reading pastimes is spending time, often hours, reading the titles and books displayed in book stores for children for their summer reading.

I have favorite bookstores at the shore, in Cape Cod and Maine, in the North Carolina's Blue Ridge, at the national parks of the west by our canyons and natural wonders, and in the mountains of Wyoming, as well as the big chains. Suddenly the store displays change from the school year offerings to books about a day at the beach, birds and shells of the shore, animals of the particular region and their habits and habitats, the geology of the area, summer sports, crafts...the children's choices are many too.

Each year there are great new books on summer subjects for kids. And of course the books that support the summer reading lists, but wonderfully there are new books that offer children the delight of good story that is not required reading.

What a treasure trove for the writer too, to check out what's new and have the books spread out before you, with the variety of title, story and illustration in living color, instead of scrolling down a screen. It's a pleasure as well as an opportunity to research some of the current offerings for children, and especially to see what's chosen by the booksellers in a particular section of the country.

It's exciting to review the books and equally exciting to feel a charge of incentive to get home to start to write that new story or to begin again to revise an old one. Unless you get started you will never have the possibility of seeing your own book displayed with summer reading.

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Friday, May 20, 2011

Cotton Candy Reads

Right now on your night stand is a book (or e-book in your e-reader of choice) that you might not admit to anyone you’re reading. Or maybe it’s a book in your beach tote. Or a book tucked away in your purse for those random moments like waiting in line at the DMV, or your lunch hour, or the doctor’s office. It’s a book you’re reading for sheer entertainment. What I like to call my “Cotton Candy” reads.

Don’t get me wrong, my reading life doesn’t usually revolve around Cotton Candy reads. My favorite book happens to be The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak and I can talk until I’m blue in the face about the intricate plot, memorable characters, and the way I had to stay up until 3:00AM to finish it…sobbing, btw. But The Book Thief wasn’t an easy read. A great read, a thought-provoking read but not one I’d read in a bubble bath and yes, I tried. Something about Death and lavender scented bubbles didn’t really mix.

No, Cotton Candy reads are fun. Fluffy. Sugary. Not really good for you but fine in small doses. And you might even feel like you need to wash your hands after reading one. The Cotton Candy read that inspired this blog post is…don’t judge…pretty please…A Shore Thing by Nicole “Snooki” Pilozzi.

Yes, that Snooki.

I said don’t judge.

I’ll admit, even I JUDGED. I’m not a fan of Jersey Shore. Frankly, I’ve seen all of about five minutes of the show, and it sort of scared me. But the truth is I’m a Jersey girl and happen to LOVE the actual Jersey shore. I’ve stayed in a share house at Seaside before I knew better. I’ve ridden the Jet Star and imagined being throttled right out into the Atlantic on that first turn. I’ve had cheese steaks and fresh pressed lemonade from The Midway Steak House. Bruce. Bon Jovi. Need I say more?

And maybe that’s why I was so curious about it. Yea, yea, THAT’S IT. My novel out on submission also happens to be set in the Jersey shore, so I told myself reading it would be, um, research to suss out the competition. I never expected to actually enjoy it.

Odd thing is - I did.

As writers we need to read for many reasons. To study plot construction. To understand dialogue cadence. To see what works and what doesn’t. Reading helps us with our own writing in ways we’re probably not even completely aware. Sometimes the voices in my head are so loud when I read that it’s distracting. “Oh, here’s the inciting moment, there’s the first obstacle, here comes the point where everything goes really wrong and then only gets worse” You know what I mean because it happens to you too. (please say it does!)

Some of that even happened while I read A Shore Thing but not a whole lot. What I did find as I read it was I wasn’t really thinking about it at all. I was reading. Laughing. Being entertained. Is that really so awful? Nope. I don’t think so.*

Whenever anyone asks me to describe the book I say it was like Jackie Collins takes on the Jersey shore. Pure. Unadulterated. FUN. I completely got caught up in Gia Spumante’s search for the gorilla juice head of her dreams. I even had to Google some of the vocab like ‘gorilla juice head’ and ‘grenade’ and ‘smush’.

So wait, does that mean I learned something?

C’mon, fess up – what’s YOUR cotton candy read?

*In my defense, on the same weekend I read said book, I also saw the film “Barney’s Version” so I think the two sort of balanced my brain cells out.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Neil Gaiman Is So Worth It

Because I’m an avowed Neil Gaiman groupie, Gale, my fellow Paper Waiter, clued me in on a recent war of words between Mr. Gaiman and Matt Dean, the Republican leader of the Minnesota House of Representatives, which was first reported in the Star Tribune, the Twin Cities local paper.

If you missed the story, Dean called Mr. Gaiman a “pencil-necked little weasel who stole $45,000 from the state of Minnesota,” for accepting that amount to give a four-hour lecture at a Minnesota library last year. The money, by the way, came from a state-funded arts fund that was about to expire, so it was a case of use it or lose it.

As Mr. Gaiman clarified in his elegantly written and wonderfully titled blog post, “The Opinions of a Pencil-necked Weasel-thief,” the fee he received was actually $33,600; the money went to two charities (“a sexual abuse one and a library/author one”); and he only charges such a high fee to dissuade people from asking him to speak—not surprisingly, he says he gets a lot of requests—so he can focus on what he’s supposed to do—write.

Mr. Gaiman added that he doesn’t like being called a thief, but he likes “pencil-necked weasel” because “It has the word "pencil" in it. Pencils are good things. You can draw or write things with pencils.”

I just love his pencil defense. As for his neck, I happen to think Mr. Gaiman has one of the nicest necks I’ve ever seen on a children’s book author. And that lovely British accent. Sigh. After hearing him read from The Graveyard Book, at an author series in NYC, I’m convinced he could read from an air conditioner installation manual and make it sound like Keats.

But I digress. So tell me, are you Team Dean or Team Neil? (In the interest of full disclosure, Dean later apologized.)

Another question: Which other children’s book authors do you think are wonderful speakers? Richard Peck and Joan Bauer, both of whom reduced me to tears, are on my list. Like Neil Gaiman, I think they are totally worth the money, be it a speaking fee and/or the price of admission.

p.s. Event alert: While we’re on the topic of author talks, if you live in the NYC area, some top YA authors, including Ally Condie and Scott Westerfeld, will be speaking about “Writing for Teens Today” at the New York Public Library’s Mulberry Street Branch, on Wednesday, May 25, 2011, at 5:30 p.m. Here’s the link.

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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

"It Just 'Happened to Happen' and Was Not Very Likely To Happen Again."

Strange how life works. You spend time in a publishing desert and then, by a quirk of scheduling, you have books published two months in a row. Happy dance? Oh, yes!

This week, Okenko Books released my picture e-book app FALLING LEAVES AND FOOLISH BROTHERS.
Last month it was TEN KINDS OF CHAIRS TO COUNT. (See my post on 4/8)

Now if I could persuade a certain print magazine to publish the four pieces they're holding, maybe this publication-a-month streak could continue for a bit. Ha! Not very likely!

I know two in a row won't happen again, but the digital world does seem to run on an express timetable. I waited four years to see my traditionally published picture book. With Okenko Books I also waited for illustrations, but in each case, it was only one year from contract to publication!

Is digital publishing of original picture books always this fast? Or was I just lucky? Could anyone with more digital publishing experience take a guess?

(My post title thanks to Dr. Seuss and Bartholomew Cubbins)

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Sunday, May 8, 2011

In Honor of Mother's Day

I am a children's writer. I am also a mom. Some people think those two facts are very related. I wonder...

First of all, I wrote for children long before I became a mom. And I know there are lots of fantastic children's writers who never had children.

In fact, I remember feeling a bit annoyed when somebody who knew I had just had my first baby assumed that I would suddenly have all these wonderful story ideas for babies because of my new bundle of joy. "I write stuff for older children, thank you very much," I thought to myself with a sniff.

But indeed my children have had a major influence on my writing. My first published picture book would never have come about without all I learned from a very truck-obsessed toddler. And without him I would never have heard myself asking the question, "Where Do Diggers Sleep At Night?" (which has turned into the title of my upcoming first picture book and is indeed dedicated to that now truck-obsessed preschooler).

And my nonfiction article about animal baths, "Squeaky Clean", that appeared in Highlights High Five this month (Hurray!) would never have been written had I not become a mommy and realized how very important bath time is to young children.

Of course, how could any regular interaction with children not influence me as a children's writer? My years as a teacher (and prior to that a camp counselor and babysitter) had already greatly influenced my writing. (Those as yet unpublished chapter books would never have been written without the daily inspiration of the wonderful second and third graders I taught for so many years.)

So, while the craziness that is being mother to two young children does keep me from writing as regularly as I would like, it can also provide a wonderful sense of inspiration.

I guess it's just important to me that I go in lots of different directions as a writer (and not just writing books for my kids). In some ways, many of the books I write are more for my own inner child than for the two children I take care of each day. I hope that I always have many sources of inspiration for my manuscripts.

So, how do you think being a parent can influence (or not influence) a writer?

And... Happy Mother's Day!

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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

To Begin...No, Don't Use That Word...

I am finally undertaking the revision. Exactly one year after I finished the novel. The "rules" of writing and revision have been knocking around in my head all these months: the first chapter must hook your reader. The reader must care about your characters, and don't have too many of them. (Characters, not readers.) Eliminate the use of the verb "to be" as much as possible. Dump those participles. Watch out for too many adjectives. No adverbs, please. Don't use "began." Curb your figurative speech. Identify who's talking. Eliminate anything that does not move the plot along. No telling. Maintain the point of view. Quite possibly, I am really not a writer. However, I'm stuck with this story that I think deserves to be told...maybe.

Well, just what makes a good storyteller? I was struck by a phrase in Sunday's reading from St. John, where the disciples discover the tomb is empty. The other three gospel writers tell of this moment as well, but only the author of this gospel describes "...the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothers, but wrapped together in a place by itself." These words are unnecessary to the purpose of the story, but furnish a detail that firmly imprints the scene on the mind of the reader. Good story telling, I think. I'll keep mind, as I begin...again.

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Monday, May 2, 2011

Lessons from LOST

Okay. I admit it. I’m one of the few who never saw a single episode of LOST when it ran on network TV. And do I ever regret it.

See, I was looking for a little motivational help to stay on the old exercise bike on a daily basis. I had just finished watching HBO’s ROME – also really, really good – and found that looking forward to watching the show, made me actually ride the stinkin’ bike. So I took a trip to my local library and picked up season one of LOST. And I’m telling you right now, if you see a thinner me by mid-summer, when I’ve finished season six, I will give more credit to LOST than I will to the exercise bike.

Tension? Oh yeah, we got tension. Twists, turns, surprises? Uh-huh! How about foreshadowing – any foreshadowing here? In spades. And my absolute favorite thing – you know that writing advice, when you’re stuck make something bad happen to your character? Just watch one episode and see so many terrible things happen, your head – or one of their heads – might literally spin!

So how can I take this info and apply it to my WIP? I don’t think it will work to have my main character accidentally stand on a beehive, or have a rockslide cover the door to his house, or have some random, terrifying animal run through his neighborhood. But I am spending a lot more time figuring out ways to ratchet up the tension. Because if tension makes me stay on an exercise bike, it surely will make people read my book.

So what other television shows have I missed that keep you wanting more, more, more every week? What else should I watch for plot and tension?

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