Thursday, February 11, 2016

In Praise of Silence by Michael Gettel-Gilmartin

Margaret Forster, an English novelist, died on February the 8th. Never heard of her? Neither had I--although in her obituary I read that she published 25 novels and 14 biographies, including Georgy Girl, which inspired a movie and a song by The Seekers .

Why am I telling you about Margaret Forster? Well, her obituary noted that she refused to do book signings and gadding about the place, because writers are "solitary creatures and not performing monkeys."

Writers may indeed be solitary creatures, but nowadays there is a way to be very social: social media. From the comfort of our garretts, we can engage with the whole wide world on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and blogs like this. If we want to, we can fill our days with noise and chatter.

Noise and chatter are everywhere. Let me tell you a story: I'm a great fan of acupuncture. Here, in Portland, Oregon, I've found a low-cost clinic called Working Class Acupuncture, which practices group treatments. About a dozen recliners fill a long room. Soft music hums, and the acupuncturist goes from patient to patient, talking quietly about the needed treatment. Once needled, people often doze off--as I did yesterday, when I was woken by the noise a smart phone makes when a text message arrives.

Yes, the woman next to me, needles all over her head, hands, and feet, was carrying on a text message conversation "Yikes!" I thought, "can some people never relax?"

I don't think you can disagree with the fact that writers need solitude and quiet (as do acupunture patients.) To burrow deeply into our creative minds, we need to shut that figurative--and possibly literal--door, and have the time and leisure to think. 

In August 2012, Junot Diaz, who wrote the stunning The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, was interviewed by The Guardian. Here is part of what he said:

Author Junot Diaz
Time for Reading 'Should Not Be an Unattainable Thing'

"Books are surviving in this intense, fragmented, hyper-accelerated present, and my sense and hope is that things will slow down again and people will want more time for a contemplative life. There is no way people can keep up this pace. No one is happy. Two or three hours to read should not be an unattainable thing, although I hope we get to that stage without needing a corporate sponsored app to hold our hand. The utopian in me has my fingers crossed that we haven't quite figured out the digital future just yet. After all, the one thing we know about people: they always surprise."

(Junot, I'm trying to prise out my eye-teeth for those two to three reading hours you mention. I'm lucky to get thirty minutes before nodding off to sleep at night. Still need to work on that!)

Then, from a longer piece from an Oregon writer, Matt Love, who's a great essayist:
Commentators frequently place the primary blame on cellphones, but really, fault lies with the addicts who habitually wield them. I say all this with a unique perspective because I live near the No. 1 tourist attraction in the state -- the Oregon Coast -- and routinely see tourists on the beach allowing cellphones to conquer their solitude. And I'm not talking about using them to take photographs or write poetry. I'm talking about willfully abandoning a temporary isolation to engage in what the Sex Pistols called "blah, blah, blah." 

(I tell you, the "Smart Phone" has taken over the known universe. I may be an alien life form: I don't have one. But I've certainly watched enough parents ignoring their children at playgrounds and swimming pools in favor of staring at mini-screens.)

It's easy to sound holier than thou, but I really think a writer can benefit from taking a detour off the information super highway--even for just a couple of hours a day. Do you agree? What steps do you take to usher in the sounds of silence?

Monday, February 8, 2016

Plot-Driven or Character-Driven? Why Not Both! by Chris Eboch

Author Chris Eboch
This post is adapted from You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, from Chapter 5: Characters.

Some authors prefer to start with a plot idea, while others start with an interesting character. Either can work, but ultimately the plot and character must work together. Let’s start with a look at character development, as it intersects with plot.

A strong story needs conflict. Without conflict, you have one of those “slice of life” episodes that isn’t a real story. But conflict doesn’t just come from dramatic things happening. It comes from the character – what he or she needs and wants, and why he or she can’t get it easily. Conflict comes from a character with a problem or a goal.

Let’s start with a premise: a kid has a math test on Monday. Exciting? Hardly. But ask two simple questions, and you can add conflict.

·     Why is it important to the character? The stakes should be high. The longer the story or novel, the higher stakes you need to sustain it. A short story character might want to win a contest; a novel character might need to save the world.

·     Why is it difficult for the character? Difficulties can be divided into three general categories, traditionally called man versus man, man versus nature, and man versus himself. You can even have a combination of these. For example, someone may be trying to spy on some bank robbers (man versus man) during a dangerous storm (man versus nature) when he is afraid of lightning (man versus himself).

For our kid with the math test, here’s one example: It’s important because if he doesn’t pass, he’ll fail the class, have to go to summer school, and not get to go to football camp, when football is what he loves most. Assuming we create a character readers like, they’ll care about the outcome of this test and root for him to succeed.

Our football lover could have lots of challenges – he forgot his study book, he’s expected to baby-sit a sibling, a storm knocked out the power, he has ADHD, or he suffers test anxiety. But ideally we’ll relate the difficulty to the reason it’s important. So let’s say he has a game Sunday afternoon and is getting pressure from his coach and teammates to practice rather than study. Plus he’d rather play football anyway.

We now have a situation full of potential tension. Let the character struggle enough before he succeeds (or fails and learns a lesson), and you’ll have a story. And if these two questions can pump up a dull premise, just think what they can do with an exciting one!

Fears and Desires

As that example shows, conflict comes from the interaction between character and plot. You can create conflict by setting up situations that force a person to confront their fears. If someone is afraid of heights, make them go someplace high. If they’re afraid of taking responsibility, force them to be in charge.

For example, my middle grade fantasy The Genie’s Gift is set in the fifteenth-century Middle East and draws on the mythology of 1001 Arabian Nights. It could have been simply a magical adventure tale, but the main character gives the story depth. She is anything but the typical swashbuckling hero:

“Thirteen-year-old Anise, shy and timid, dreads marrying the man her father chooses for her. Her aunt tells her about the Genie Shakayak, the giver of the Gift of Sweet Speech, which allows one to charm everyone. Anise is determined to find the genie and ask for the gift, so she can control her own future. But the way is barred by a series of challenges, both ordinary and magical. How will Anise get past a vicious she-ghoul, a sorceress who turns people to stone, and mysterious sea monsters, when she can’t even speak in front of strangers?”

Because Anise is so desperate to reach her goal, she tackles challenges far beyond her comfort zone. This makes the dramatic action even more dramatic, while providing a sympathetic character and a theme about not letting your fears stop you from achieving your dreams.

You can also create conflict by setting up situations that oppose a person’s desires. Sometimes these desires are for practical things. In my middle grade mystery set in ancient Egypt, The Eyes of Pharaoh, the main character is a young temple dancer whose one goal is to win an upcoming contest. When her friend disappears, she has to decide if winning the contest is really more important than helping a friend.

Perhaps your character simply wants an ordinary life. In my Mayan historical novel, The Well of Sacrifice, Eveningstar never dreams of being a leader or a rebel. But when her family, the government, and even the gods fail to stop the evil high priest who is trying to take over the city, she’s forced to act. The reluctant hero is a staple of books and movies because it’s fun to watch someone forced into a heroic role when they don’t want it. (Think of Han Solo in Star Wars.)

To build conflict:

·     Start with the character’s goal. Create conflict by setting up situations which oppose a person’s needs and desires.
·     What does your main character want? What does he need? Make these things different, and you’ll add tension. It can be as simple as our football player who wants to practice football, but needs to study. Or it could be more subtle, like someone who wants to be protected but needs to learn independence. (Or the reverse, someone who wants independence but still needs to be protected. Those two characters could even be in the same story. Life is complex, with many shades of gray, and books can explore that.)
·     Even if your main problem is external (man versus man or man versus nature), consider giving the character an internal flaw (man versus himself) that contributes to the difficulty. Perhaps your character has a temper, is lazy, or refuses to ever admit she’s wrong. This helps set up your complications and as a bonus makes your character seem more real.
·     Your character may change or grow as a person during the story. This is called a character arc. A character who changes is usually more interesting than one who does not. However, growth does not always mean a reversal of attitude. The growth can come from reaffirming what the character already knew. For example, a child could know what is right but struggle to do it. In the end he does what is right, growing by following and reinforcing his beliefs.
·     A character’s growth can reflect your theme, by showing what the character learns.
·     Before you start, test the idea by considering different options. Change the character’s age, gender, or looks. Change the point of view. Change the setting. Change the internal conflict. What happens? Choose the combination that has the most dramatic potential.
·     The conflict must be important enough to sustain the story, and it must not be too easy to solve. This will vary by story length and readership age group.
·     It should take more than one attempt to solve the problem – three tries works well for shorter fiction. For longer fiction, add more attempts, or have each attempt made up of several parts.
·     To build original plots, brainstorm 10 possible things that could happen next. Pick the least likely, so long as it makes sense for the story.

Some writers start with plot ideas and then develop the character who’ll face those challenges, while others start with a great character and then figure out what he or she does. Regardless, remember to work back and forth between plot and character, tying them together with conflict.

You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers offers an overview on writing for young people. Learn how to find ideas and develop those ideas into stories, articles, and books. Understand the basics of character development, plot, setting, and theme – and some advanced elements, along with how to use point of view, dialogue, and thoughts. Finally, learn about editing your work and getting critiques.

You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers is available for the Kindle, in paperback, or in Large Print paperback.

Note: If you order the print or large print version from Amazon, you can get the Kindle version as a free add-on. You Can Write for Children includes many links to additional resources; in the Kindle version you can click to go directly to the websites or blogs listed. If you don't have a Kindle, download a free Kindle app for your computer.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Some thoughts on Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate (by Paul Greci)

I was intrigued by one of the themes in Crenshaw, families who fall on hard times and find themselves homeless. As someone who has been in the field of education for 25 years I’ve seen this scenario many times.

Two of the many things I loved about Crenshaw were the emotional realism of the main character, and the way we are allowed into his world through his quirky, contagious, voice. Even if homelessness isn’t high your list of topics to read about like it is on mine, you’ll want to read Crenshaw for the voice.

Jackson is still a kid even though he has to deal with things that might make a kid grow up faster than what is ideal, and that comes through in his voice. 

The excerpt below is from the beginning of Chapter Two:

“Here’s the thing: I am not an imaginary friend kind of guy.
Seriously. This fall I go into fifth grade. At my age, it’s not good to have a reputation for being crazy.
I like facts. Always have. True stuff. Two-plus-two-equals-four facts. Brussels-sprouts-taste-like-dirty-gym-socks facts.
Okay, maybe that second one’s just an opinion. And anyway, I’ve never eaten a dirty gym sock so I could be wrong.”

From the Jacket Flap:

Jackson and his family have fallen on hard times. There's no more money for rent. And not much for food, either. His parents, his little sister, and their dog may have to live in their minivan. Again.

Crenshaw is a cat. He's large, he's outspoken, and he's imaginary. He has come back into Jackson's life to help him. But is an imaginary friend enough to save this family from losing everything?

Beloved author Katherine Applegate proves in unexpected ways that friends matter, whether real or imaginary.
Thanks for stopping by.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Deliver a Successful Author PowerPoint Presentation via Skype by Donna Galanti

I was excited to conduct my first Skype visit in January. I had planned to do just a Q&A but thought it would be a good test to try a shortened version of my in-person PowerPoint presentation. It worked wonderfully and the students really enjoyed it. I’m sharing what I’ve learned from this fun process! 

How to Run a PowerPoint via Skype:
  • My presentation has several animated GIFs (a huge hit!) and video so I wanted to ensure they worked. Testing it with the school beforehand confirmed that it did.
  • Have your PowerPoint presentation open in edit mode and ready to go in slide show mode. Make sure all other programs are closed on your computer.
  • Video call your contact in Skype (make sure the video icon at the bottom is on so you can see each other).
  • Click the + sign at the bottom of your screen and choose Share Screens.
  • Click Start and your presentation will come up on their screen with a thumbnail window of you.
  • Start your slideshow and walk through it.
  • When done click Stop Sharing and the presentation will close and you will be full screen again.


My Skype Presentation Tips:
  • Friend the teacher on Skype and conduct a test sharing your PowerPoint presentation. The school will want to project it on a screen or SmartBoard.
  • Be prepared for the presentation to crash. I’ve heard from some authors this can happen especially if the school’s internet is not strong. I decided that if this continually happened I would end the presentation and switch to Q&A. I also let the teacher know this as well.  Alternate choice: go through your slides without being in slideshow format. This may reduce issues. However, the audience will see the edit mode of your presentation and your video/animation won’t play unless you click to play.
  • Practice your presentation beforehand and time it. My 4th grade period was 45 minutes long but it took the teacher a few minutes to settle them down before she called me. I took my full 50 minute in-person presentation and cut it to 20-25 minutes allowing for 10 minutes of Q&A at the end. I think even a 15 minute presentation plus Q&A would be fine as well.
  • Beforehand, ask the teacher to have the students push their desks back and sit in rows of chairs to make it easier for them to get to the microphone and ask questions.
  • Limit the Skype visit to 50 students or two classrooms combined.
  • Set up a spot for your computer screen and clear the space behind you to create a presentable backdrop when on camera. Especially if you mean to scan your office to show the students!
  • Make sure your speaker volume is turned up! This will ensure you can hear the reaction of the students and their answers to any questions as you go along in your presentation.
  • Ask the teacher to turn the computer to face the students so you see them and their reactions and not you on the big screen. Otherwise, it’s very hard to gauge the student’s interest and reactions!
  • Take a screen shot of your Skype presentation in the middle of it to save as an image to use for social media later.
  • Plan ahead for the class to purchase your books. I have an arrangement with the representative of my local bookshop and we’ve created a new process for Skype and in-person visits. For both visits she sends the teacher an order form weeks ahead of time (so be sure to schedule your visits 4-6 weeks in advance). The teacher collects orders with checks made out to the school and the school sends the bookshop one check. For in-person visits I sign and take the books with me and they receive a 20% discount. For Skype, the bookshop offers a 15% discount to cover the costs to ship the books. This new process seems to be working out!

Keep in mind students will be excited during your visit and want to order your book, if they didn’t do so ahead of time. I let them know they can still order the book via my local bookshop and the bookshop coordinates that with the teacher.

Giving a Skype visit was very similar to presenting in person as I engaged with the audience throughout my presentation and ended with Q&A – but of course, did not have to leave the comfort of my home!

Additional resources:
Want to add fun animated GIFs to your presentation?
I use where you can search by topic or add your own clips to create an animated GIF.

Want to grab video to use from any source? I recommend Bandicam (okay, really my 12-year-old son did and showed me how to use it). You can download the program for free and use it to record any video snippets to use in your presentation. 

How to use Bandicam screen recording software:
  • Download Bandicam to your computer.
  • Open it from the icon on desktop.
  • A window will pop up to record.
  • Open the video you want to capture. If it’s a portion of the video make sure it’s paused right where you want to start recording.
  • Once you open your video, a blank window in Bandicam will pop up with a REC button in the upper right corner.
  • Move the blank window over your video. You can click the borders on the top and bottom to frame the video exactly where you want.
  • Click the REC button.
  • When the video ends where you want it to then click the square STOP button next to record.
  • It will record all within that window so make sure you don’t move your mouse through it as it will record that as well.  
  • You can also use this program to just capture an image and not video. Click the camera icon next to the REC button for capturing an image only.
  • Click on your Bandicam icon on your computer screen at the bottom and the window will pop up again with selections.
  • Choose the file folder icon at the top and this will show you where your video file is. Copy it to whatever folder you want.
  • The selection window is where you can also choose Settings before you record your video to make the file smaller. I discovered this when I did video for my website as it wouldn’t let me load over 50mg file so I had to reduce the video. Just click Settings to see choices.
Note, the video you create will have titled at the top unless you pay for their service but I don’t think it takes away from the presentation. Check out a website with an educator's guide on copyright, fair use, and creative commons using video for education purposes.

Insert Video into your PowerPoint Presentation: 
  • Open your presentation and the slide you want video in.Click Insert and then Video (all the way to the right in the top menu).
  • Then click Video from File.
  • Select your video from the folder you have it in.
  • When inserted then click the video image still for Video Tools options menu at the top.
  • Click Playback.
  • Make sure the box Start Automatically is checked if you want it to start once the slide opens in the show – or if you want to click the video to start during your presentation then don’t check this box.
  • In Video Tools you can also choose for the video to loop or fade in or out.
A great website resource for creating school visits is School Visit Experts.

Have you ever done a Skype PowerPoint presentation or other kind of Skype visit? Did you use video as well? Share your advice and tips here!

Thursday, January 28, 2016


As the newest member of the Project Mayhem team, I confess I have a soft spot for late bloomers. I was a late bloomer myself (I may still qualify for the term, as I entered an MFA program at age 48!), and I love late-blooming characters. How do I define late bloomers? Late bloomers are not champing at the bit, pushing the envelope, or trying to act older than they are. They are content to act their age (and may even act a bit younger), and they are not in a rush to get to the next developmental stage.

Here are some great examples of late bloomers in recent middle-grade fiction:

  • ·      In Kwame Alexander’s award winning verse novel The Crossover (2015 Newbery Medal winner and Coretta Scott King Honor book), twin brothers Joshua and Jordan Bell are excellent basketball players. Josh feels forsaken as his twin embarks on a first romance, and he frets as the family feels the stress of his father’s deteriorating health. Josh’s feeling of being left behind is captured beautifully in “Second-Person”— “After practice, you walk home alone./This feels strange to you, because/as long as you can remember/there has always been a second person.”

  • ·      In Rebecca Stead’s Goodbye Stranger, seventh-grader Bridge is a fragile yet resilient character who suffered life-threatening injuries in an accident when she was younger and was out of school for almost a year due to her recuperation. This figures into her late-bloomer status as she missed out on some milestones in schooling. She dons her cat ear headband in the very beginning of the book: “…the ears became a comforting presence. When she was small, her father would sometimes rest his hand on her head as they went down the street. It was a little bit like that.” Bridge struggles with the social pressures of middle school that test the bonds of friendship with her two best friends, and she has some approach/avoidance feelings about a friendship with a boy that might turn into something more.

  • ·      In Tim Federle’s Better Nate Than Ever, 13-year-old Nate, an aspiring actor with a love of show tunes, often gets teased for being gay. Yet he declares, “My sexuality, by the way, is off-topic and unrelated. I am undecided. I am a freshman at the College of Sexuality and I have undecided by major, and frankly I don’t want to declare anything other than ‘Hey jerks, I’m thirteen, leave me alone. Macaroni and cheese is still my favorite food—how would I know who I want to hook up with?’” Nate is firmly staking out his claim that he is not yet ready to deal with sexuality and courtship…which may shift a bit by the end of the story.

As adults who write for and about middle-graders, there is much to consider and respect in the unfolding process of a late bloomer’s development—social, emotional, and physical. By capturing the micro-steps of that unfolding, we can create rich and textured characters that go beyond the popular cliché of the snarky or wisecracking middle-grader who is in a rush to grow up.

There are rich possibilities for conflict in creating a late blooming character:

·      **The awkwardness sparked by delayed puberty, when peers are physically changing and your character is not. (Bridge in Goodbye Stranger is a great example of this.)

**Peers are beginning to pursue courtship, while late bloomers may have ambivalence about this. (The Crossover, Goodbye Stranger, Better Nate Than Ever)

**Late bloomers may resist scripted social situations like dances, Valentines Day, group chats.

**Many late bloomers feel mystified and/or lonely when siblings/friends begin interacting socially in more complicated ways (romantic or otherwise)  (The Crossover and Goodbye Stranger). There can be loss of friendship or feelings of closeness with peers when developmental paths are diverging.

**Late bloomers may not be yet venturing into snarkiness or boundary-testing; they may gravitate more towards home, safety, and rules as their peers are beginning to chafe against those things. (The Crossover and Goodbye Stranger) Late bloomers tend to be rule followers—rich territory for conflict.

**The primacy of family is important to late bloomers and provides an anchor, even as peer influences become more important to most middle-graders. (Josh’s loyalty to his parents in The Crossover is a good example)

**Late bloomers may have a rich inner life/observer status, but they may not always be able to comprehend or analyze what they are seeing; in some cases the reader may know more than the character does.  (Goodbye Stranger, The Crossover, Better Nate Than Ever)

 **Late bloomers may still crave “play” while peers are moving on to other ways of forming social relationships. (wearing the cat ears, the role of basketball, drawing doodles on school work) They may gravitate toward others late bloomers or younger siblings/friends, which can be a comfort or a source of awkwardness.

**The analytical skills of late bloomers are still developing, which might show itself in academic work, social relationships, or problem solving. (Better Nate Than Ever, The Crossover, Goodbye Stranger)

In our hurried world, I believe it’s important to capture the experience of the late-blooming kid in all its micro-steps. This profile transcends race, culture and socio-economics. Many of our avid middle-grade readers fit this description, and writing a nuanced portrayal of their experience will offer a rewarding mirror to them.  Even if our characters are ambivalent about some of the milestones of growing up, there are rich possibilities for complexity and conflict in their meandering yet inexorable path to maturity.

Do you have a favorite example of a late-blooming character in middle-grade fiction? Add it to the comments!