Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Enough Head Space, by Matthew MacNish

I wrote this post a while back on my personal blog. I called it Storytelling, but really it should have been called How do You Know When You're Ready to Start Telling Your Story? I'm not sure why it was so popular, but it probably had something to do with Nathan Bransford sharing it on his blog.

It wasn't really a very good post. It was short, and no research went into it or anything, but I think it asked a question that really resonated with writers.

I've been thinking about that question again lately, because I'm kind of in-between projects. I'm not the kind of writer who writes every day.

Well, let me rephrase that. I'm not the kind of writer who puts words into a draft of a new manuscript every day. But I am the kind of writer who thinks about stories every day.

Lately, I've been wondering how I find the head space. Recently, I've been working on two deep critiques for some critique partners I have (they are both award winning published authors, so I'm not really sure why they trust or even need my feedback, but that's neither here nor there). I have also been putting words down on a project of my own I'm working on, but it's not a draft. It's brainstorming.

I can't say much about the project, but it's a secondary world fantasy, and I've never written one of those before, so I want to make sure to do the necessary work up front, to build the world, so that I have a sturdy foundation going in once I really am ready to draft.

So what's my point?

I'm not really sure, but I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm okay with "not writing every day." I don't have the head space to juggle four stories at once. I mean as long as I'm working on storytelling--which, let's face it, if you're a storyteller by your nature, there's really no getting away from it--I'm okay with that.

I learn more from reading and analyzing other people's work than I do from pounding out my own first drafts anyway.

What about you all? How many projects can you work on at once?

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The winner of THE SECRET HUM OF A DAISY announced...

I had so much fun reading, then writing a blog post, then interacting with all the wonderful people who left a comment on my post about Tracy Holczer's THE SECRET HUM OF A DAISY. Now, I have just pressed the button on, and dear Random tells me that the winner of a signed copy is none other than

Which is a secret hum of a coincidence, because I will be featuring Kimberley's beautiful novel, THE TIME OF THE FIREFLIES on my other blog, Middle Grade Mafioso, this coming Monday.

What a small world!

Kimberley, I am e-mailing you to tell you of your win. Congratulations, and thanks to all who entered. I hope to do this again soon.

Monday, July 28, 2014

4 Tools for the Writing Parent by Joanna Roddy

"Mother" -Nikki McClure

Being a parent of young children is all-in, no matter what else you have going on. And it presents special challenges for us creatives who need space and time for our work in addition to bringing home the bacon or taking care of littles. But inciting a rivalry between your children and your creative progeny will only make you feel frustrated and hopelessly divided. A while back I read a post by YA author Laini Taylor about "Writers with Kids" and I liked how she phrased the topic as "Not so much 'kids as obstacle' but 'kids as given.'" 

Making peace between my own work/life balance as a writing parent is something I've been honing for years now, and what seems to work in one season can change with my own creative growth and my family's development. Here are four tools that have helped to ground me and other writers I know in the midst of a life that sometimes feels like it's been reduced to tantrums, skipped naps, and bleary-eyed late night feedings. 

"A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without
putting a word on paper." -E.B. White
Get Support:
You can't do it alone. Supportive spouses are a common theme in the Mayhem group and you do need a champion in your corner to keep the faith when you're discouraged and to let you work while they man the wheel at home. One of our Mayhemmers with five kids called a meeting to get everyone's input on whether his writing career was important (the kids agreed it was) and what he could do to stay involved with family life. This gave him clarity on how to be present to his kids' needs when he was with them. Even single parents can find supportive family members or friends who will spend time with the kids while they work. On the flip side, there will always be skeptics of your choice to invest in creative work and it's important not to let their disapproval cripple your efforts. Get your team of advocates and tune out the critics. 

Embrace an unconventional work schedule
Time is the giant hurdle for writing parents and there are a million ways to make it work. I have a hands-on husband who looks forward to time with the kids after work. He often gives me one day each weekend to write while he hosts "daddy daycare" with a bunch of his friends. Just last year I also started to get up at 4:00 in the morning to work for a couple of hours before my kids wake up. I'd never done anything like this before and I have found it surprisingly wonderful. It's a commitment that requires a shift to an early bedtime and a new paradigm on evening social commitments. But I was too tired most days by the time the kids were in bed to do much more than watch shows or tinker on the internet, so why not just go to bed and wake up fresh and ready to work? Because there's no way I am going to get up at 4:00 just to read my Facebook feed--I'm getting down to business.   

Other Mayhemmers have done all kinds of crazy schedules, like driving babies all over town till they're asleep and then writing like mad on a laptop in a parking lot until they wake up, or having a spouse with a flexible schedule and taking afternoon writing sessions a few days a week. Some have hired a sitter to give them a few hours of writing once a week (me included), some have written between innings at little league games, and some even have a spouse who works night shifts so there's daytime space for the writer to work. I used to do swaps with other mom friends: I would drop my kids with them for a few hours and go work and then come back and watch their kids and mine for a few hours while they went out and did their own thing. I even know one woman who wrote her entire doctoral dissertation in 15 minute increments. You have to get creative with your time, but where there's a will, there's a way.

Go on retreat:
One of the most helpful things for me has been getting a work weekend away once every few months. There's traction and momentum that comes with long chunks of time without interruption. Last fall I fulfilled a lifelong dream and rented a one-room cabin in the woods, a dedicated writer's refuge on an island in the Puget Sound. I channeled my inner Thoreau, cooked and slept and worked in a sanctuary of silence, and after three days had revised or written more than I had ever done at once in my life. You don't have to splurge on accommodations, though. Wait until a friend is going out of town and offer to housesit or apply to funded writing residencies in your area. 

Learn when to fight and when to flow:
Creative work is hard to choose for and you do have to get fierce about it and fight for it. When you never know the next time you'll get a chance to work, it's easy to become distracted and resentful when caring for your children, but if you can block out and commit to a work schedule of some kind, then you are freed to compartmentalize and be more present to your family when you're with them. It's also important to expect that unforeseen circumstances will sometimes intrude into your work time, especially as you rely on other people to care for your kids. If you can hold onto your own resolve to keep making the time to work, then the setbacks won't feel like failure.

How have you found time to write in the midst of family responsibilities? What other strategies have been helpful to you as a writer with kids? And if you don't have kids, how do you maintain a balance between writing and your other responsibilities? Would love to hear your thoughts!

Friday, July 25, 2014

My Love For Tracy Holczer's THE SECRET HUM OF A DAISY (And A Giveaway)

THE SECRET HUM OF A DAISY by Tracy Holczer (G.P. Putnam's Sons, May 2014)

"Writing would help me through it, just like it always had. And where I used to think that writing was like the little hole in a teakettle to let out steam, I figured it was more than that. I hoped the hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of words I wrote down would help me fill the empty place left by Mama and make me whole." (The Secret Hum of a Daisy, pages 282-283)

The words above are those of 12-year-old Grace, the narrator of Tracy Holczer's luminous debut novel. Every writer, I'm sure, can embrace such a sentiment. For how many times does writing fill our empty places and make us whole? I know it does for me.

Grace has lost her mother in a freak accident. It turns out to be the biggest loss of many losses in her life. Her father and her grandfather were killed in a car accident before she was born, which had a connection with her grandmother sending her mother (pregnant with Grace) away. How could anyone find forgiveness in all this? Especially since now Grace has ended up with the very grandmother whom see believes to be the cause of all her troubles?

The novel starts with Grace's mother's funeral, and her being taken home by her grandmother. There are many humorous scenes, where she tries to put a "Plan B" into effect, trying to force her grandmother to send her back to the friends she lived with at the time of her mother's death. (Laundry detergent being sneakily replaced by dishwashing soap, anyone?) The emotional heft of the novel feels intensely realistic, as Grace moves through her anger and resentment to some understanding of her mother, her grandmother, and herself.

The setting--a small town an hour away from Sacramento--and the cast of characters are captivating. All of them figure in the treasure hunt (a hunt both literal and figurative) which leads Grace to a greater knowledge of herself.

Finally, I loved the way the characters were so richly realized. It would have been easy to "let them off the hook," but each character is flawed--and therefore alive--in their own way. This is the sort of novel that resonates with a reader long after the final page is read and the cover closed. I wouldn't be surprised to hear the words "Newbery" whispered about it.

As for me, in my other blogging life, I am a tough old prune of a Middle Grade Mafioso. You wouldn't expect a 50-something, former Brit like me to be dabbing my eyes with a handkerchief--but believe me, I did so a number of times while reading this glorious book. (I did the same during A Bridge to Terabithia and at the ending of Charlotte's Web.) As a result, I am going to send one lucky winner a copy of this novel, so you can laugh and cry as much as I did. I'm also hoping to have Tracy Holzcer send me an inscribed bookplate for the winner. (You can learn more about Tracy Holczer at her website. There's also a great interview with her by Natalie Aguirre of Literary Rambles.)

All you have to do to be a winner is comment on this post. To add to the fun, choose a number between 1 and 312 and I will gift you with some lines from your chosen page. And believe me, each page has at least one line, if not several, which made me go "Wowzers!"

Thanks for supporting the Mayhem. You have until one minute before midnight PST on Monday the 28th to leave your comment and have a chance of winning. Winner will be notified on the blog on 7/29. U.S./Canada entries only, please.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The 6 Stages of Accepting Feedback by Dianne K. Salerni

I’m currently waiting on an editorial letter for my latest manuscript with equal parts eagerness and dread.

Revision is my favorite part of the writing process, and the edit letters from my HarperCollins editor have been amazing so far. She helped me turn The Eighth Day and The Inquisitor’s Mark into much better books. Based on reviews for The Eighth Day, she also saved me from making a big mistake with one of my characters.

But when I see that email in my In-box I tend to hyperventilate with anxiety. I’m betting I’m not alone in that, right? Whether the feedback is from a critique partner, a trusted beta reader, or critique won in a contest from a blogger/writer you don’t even know, do you reach for a brown paper bag to breathe into while you read?

For me, there are usually six stages of reacting to feedback on my manuscript.

Stage 1: No! She’s wrong! She is absolutely and completely wrong about this!

Stage 2: Crap. She’s right.

Stage 3: But I can’t fix it! Changing this will have a domino effect and make the entire plot unworkable. It cannot be fixed!

Stage 4: Oh, wait. I see how to fix it.

Stage 5: You know, this change is pretty good. I’m liking it.

Stage 6: This is brilliant! Why didn’t I do it this way in the first place?!

I’ve come to accept these stages. I also understand it’s not possible for me to skip the scary and upsetting ones, even though I know the later, more positive stages are coming. The trick is NOT to shoot off an email to the person who gave you the feedback while you are in the throes of Stage 1 or Stage 3!

I’m prone to shooting back an email during Stage 2, although I usually wish I’d waited until Stage 4 so that I can thank the person for the feedback, ask for any clarification needed, and already have a plan in mind for revisions. (I feel foolish when I’ve sent a note to my editor whining complaining explaining that I don’t know how to handle the changes when the next day I’ve got it figured out!)

Over time, I’ve also learned something important about addressing issues raised in a critique or editorial letter. I had trouble putting the idea into words, but luckily, Neil Gaiman did it for me:

Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong. ~ Neil Gaiman

You have the option of ignoring the feedback you get from critique partners and beta readers. Less so for agents and editors. But you should carefully consider every bit of feedback you get – especially if more than one reader comments on the same thing.  Listen to what they’re saying. Figure out why this element doesn’t work for them, and keep in mind that they can’t always pinpoint the reason themselves. You’re going to have to be the one to figure it out. Address the issue in a way that makes sense for your story. Most of the time, your fix will be better than the one they suggested – and will get you to the glorious Stage 6 faster.

Change happens. As a writer, learn to embrace it. Just keep a brown paper bag handy.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Pixar's 22 Rules of Storytelling

Happy Monday, everyone!

My apologies for this super short post, which is basically just a link to somebody else’s post, but I found it so helpful and interesting I couldn’t not share. Emma Coats, story artist at Pixar, compiled Pixar’s 22 Tips for Writers, which was posted at PR Daily last week (link below).

Tips #2 and #12 really resonated with me, but I think they’re all great food for thought.

Hope you enjoy and share them around.

Happy writing!

photo credit: silkegb via photopin cc

Friday, July 18, 2014

Evolving Your Dream (aka Don't Write Another Harry Potter)

This is by no means a blanket statement, so please don't take it as such, but in the publishing world, once a house or literary agency gets a big hit, let's use Harry Potter as our example, by and large the last thing they are going to do is take on another series or even a stand-alone about a school for wizards. Reasons: A) It's been done. B) Think of it as a conflict of interests. This could lead to some awkward conversations with the house's or agency's bestselling author and they are not going to risk losing said bestselling author by signing another author who's writing a "look-a-like" series. I mean, let's be honest, would you? C) Once a series is a runaway hit in the market, readers tend to mark that type of book off their list and move on, making the read-alikes, though maybe just as good, secondary to their earlier counterpart and always compared to it. Like I said though, there are exceptions to this rule, but when we're talking about a school for wizards, a camp for Greek demigods, vampires that sparkle in the sun, or an ancient clan of warrior owls, I'm darn sure you can tell me the title of each series, even if you haven't read them, which is saying a lot.

All that said, this post isn’t meant to discourage you from writing the book of your dreams. Just maybe, you need to reinvent your dream. In other words, take it to the next level so it becomes your own and incomparable to other authors. When you listen to music from thirty years ago and you hear those old school drum machines in the background, you may think how basic or even simple it all sounded, but back in the day, that music was the height of technology, ultra cool, but guess what, music went to the next level, and the next, and the next. Technology went to the next level too. Gone are the Amiga 3000's that could sink a small boat and in their place have risen tiny compact machines with awe-inspiring power that fit in the palm of your hand. Even cooking has evolved. Think of food from the seventies. I remember seeing a picture of my mom at a dinner party holding an appetizer that looked like plastic pink marshmallows on a stick, now compare that to what chefs think up today like Kobe beef skewers with Thai chili sauce. What a difference! Everything evolves. Shouldn't writing evolve? Shouldn’t our stories evolve? Instead of retelling the same idea (and I'm not talking about the retelling of fairytales, completely different topic), why not take an idea and make it completely our own?  

So, your book about a boy who goes to a school for wizards has already been done. Now what? Write it anyway? Sure, you could do that. You may even get lucky, but man, your chances are slim to nonexistent. But what if you completely switched things up? What if being a wizard was completely normal, the more wizardly you were the better, and if you weren't a wizard you were sent to school to be a domestic, destined to forever wait hand and foot on those who were born with gifts you were not given? How could you make that MC special? What could make your book shine? Think about it. What could a young servant learn living in the house of a great wizard? What secrets might unfold? How could he become special? And if this book's already been written, I apologize...I'm thinking of a story on the fly here! ;) 

What am trying to get at is you don't have to kill your original idea. You only need to nurture it a little and let it transform into a brand new story, something that's all you. Be your own catalyst. Evolve that dream and turn it into an amazing first-time-ever reality for your readers. Make your next story the one twenty years from now other writers will wish they'd have written.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Scary Tales for Summer Nights by Kell Andrews

Anybody can scare a middle-grader with age-inappropriate scenarios. But what makes a book frightening within a strictly middle-grade world view?

Once my first book came out last month, I braced myself for reader reactions. One thing that I was surprised to hear is that Deadwood can be scary for the youngest middle-grade readers.  I didn't know I was writing a scary book -- suspenseful, yes, but scary? It's not violent or graphic by any means, and I have a low tolerance for gore even as an adult. And it's about a tree -- not high on anyone's list of spooky things.

Then I realized that the scariness comes from the supernatural occurrence in an otherwise realistic setting. A book is scarier if it seems as if it could really happen in the reader's world. At 2 a.m., what seems scarier: a tale of a harmless ghost that hums sweet nursery rhymes in the hallway, or a book about a ferocious dragon that terrorizes a medieval village? (Trick question: nursery rhymes are naturally scary.)

But as a principle of spooky tales, familiarity makes frightening, whether the suburban school settings of R.L.Stine or "it happened to someone my cousin knows" of urban legends and campfire tales.

In honor of campfires and short summer nights that seem long, here are ten scary tales for middle grade readers.

The Mostly True Story of Jack by Kelly Barnhill
What makes it scary: Normal Iowa town with strange magic just below the surface? Yes please!

Doll Bones by Holly Black
What makes it scary: A doll made from the ground-up bones of a murdered girl.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
What makes it scary: Bod is a boy raised by ghosts  -- but it's the living humans that are really dangerous.

All the Lovely Bad Ones by Mary Downing Hahn
What makes it scary: Spiteful spirits awaken in an isolated inn when Corey and Travis play practical jokes.
Well Witched by Frances Hardinge
What makes it scary: Ryan, Josh, and Chelle steal a coin from a well. Now the witch of the well is making them pay it back, and the price may be too high. 

The Wig in the Window by Kristen Kittscher
What makes it scary: Every kid has a weird teacher now and then. But Sophie and Grace's is really up to something creepy.
The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy by Nikki Loftin
What makes it scary: Ravenous teachers and memories that fail in a truly nightmarish scenario.
In the Land of the Lawn Weenies and Other Warped and Creepy Tales by David Lubar
What makes it scary: Can you laugh when you're scared? Yes. In these warped campfire tales normal kid situations take abnormal, Twilight Zone twists.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
What makes it scary: A monster shows up at midnight. But he's not the most terrifying thing Conor must face.
The Kneebone Boy by Ellen Potter
What makes it scary: One of the creepiest things about this modern gothic tale is a narrator so unreliable, we're not even sure which of the Hardscrabble children it is. 
A Drowned Maiden's Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz
What makes it scary: Phony spiritualists enlist orphan Maud in their scheme -- but the danger and ghosts turn out to be real.

What are your favorite scary middle-grade books, new or old? 

I'm offering a special shout-out here to Jane-Emily by Patricia Clapp, which was the ghost story that scared my childhood friends and me no matter how many times we read it.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Stopping the Midnight Madness: Jennifer Bohnhoff on Historical Fiction

They say the devil is in the details.  Even though it was thirty years ago, I remember the day I showed my sophomore English class the old, (1959) movie The Diary of Anne Frank.  We had just finished reading the book, and as I threaded the 35mm film through the projector, I thought about how seeing the story was going to enrich their understanding.  We had just gotten to a scene in which the Frank family cowers in their attic hideaway while Allied planes bomb Amsterdam when one of my students left her seat and scurried over to me, bent in half so that she wouldn’t block the picture from the screen.

                “Mrs. Bohnhoff, I don’t get it,” she whispered.

                “What don’t you get?” I whispered back. 

I was probably glowing with joy as I anticipated her question.  Maybe she was wondering how the Frank family could deal with the emotional vulnerability of staying in an attic when everyone else was hidden away in underground bomb shelters.  Or why the Allies would bomb the Netherlands when it was occupied territory and therefore filled with non-Axis-supporting civilians. 

But no.  You can imagine my surprise when she asked why there were midnight madness sales going on.  Wouldn’t the bombing scare away all the customers?  It took me a while to figure out what had bedeviled her: in her experience, the giant search lights that streak across the sky are intended to draw people into Kmart midnight madness sales, not help anti-aircraft batteries blast bombers out of the sky.

If we want our children to understand the great sweep of history, we need to make sure they understand the minutia.  Otherwise, those details will bedevil them and they will miss the point.

The best way to teach the minutia of history is through historical fiction.  Tarry Lindquist,  a Washington State fifth-grade teacher  who was been recognized by the National Council for the Social Studies as National Elementary Teacher of the Year, says that historical fiction  “hammers home everyday details,” providing “visual and contextual clues to how people lived, what their speech was like, how they dressed, and so on. When accurately portrayed, these details are like a savings account that students can draw on and supplement - each deposit of information provides a richer understanding of the period.”[1]   

When students read historical fiction, they begin to absorb historical details without even realizing it.  Students learn about the period’s geography, the size of towns or cities and modes of transportation.  They learn about the period’s governmental and social organization, distribution of wealth, social classes, religious beliefs, and laws.  They get a sense of the manner of dress, types of food and entertainment.  Students may be focusing on plot and characterization, but they are learning about an historical period and depositing information in their intellectual savings accounts so that they won’t draw on their own limited experiences and misinterpret those details like my student did.

Historical novels give life to these details in ways that textbooks can’t.  A history textbook, pressed to get all the dates of important offenses and names of key politicians and generals in World War II, is unlikely to give more than a mention to wartime rationing.  The textbook is not going to discuss “sleep-sickness,” a lethargy caused by malnutrition and too few calories common among civilians and POWs, nor is it going to explain how the details of rationing became the organizing force in many people’s lives.

In Code: Elephants on the Moon, my middle grade novel set in France during WWII, the protagonist goes to town every afternoon, looking for cards in merchant windows announcing that  “meat was allowed to Category A, which encompassed most adults including Maman and Barbe, or that Category J3, those aged 13 through 21, deserved extra bread from the Boivin Sisters, or milk from the lecherie.  Of course, just because she deserved them didn’t always mean Eponine got them.  One could only buy what the stores had to offer.  If the shelves were empty, so was her stomach.”  Reading this helps students understand the hardships of war on a more personal level than they would have gotten from a textbook.  It might even compel them to do some research, further deepening their understanding of the period.

Once students have a firm grasp of an historical period, they can then consider the relevancy of the past in relation to their own society. The students can begin to see how a study of the past helps them to understand the present.

Civil War historian Bruce Catton believes that, by recreating the past, the historian is also creating literature: “the historian has to face the fact that he is engaged in the literary art . . . what he writes is finally going to have the effect of expanding his reader’s horizon. It is going to move the reader emotionally just because a true account of man’s unending struggle with destiny is always moving. To discharge his obligation fully - to meet the challenge which the writing of history presents - the historian must always bear in mind that he is for the moment acting as an artist.” [2]

The writer of good historical fiction recreates the past with an immediacy and attention to historical detail that neither history textbooks nor pure fiction can achieve alone.

Even the minutia of history can compel students to ask big questions.  When I was researching my Civil War novel The Bent Reed, I learned that women of the period dipped shirts into water in which the potatoes had been boiled before ironing them because the potato water provided the starch that stiffened the shirts.  While I did not include this detail in my book, consider how it might lead to a discussion on the use of resources in modern society.  How many things do we throw out that could be used in some alternative way?

An historical novelist who creates a compelling story draws a reader in and helps the reader not only discover the period, but realize the importance and usefulness of studying history. Students who grasp the significance of historical details begin to understand that that an understanding of the past is a means of dealing with the challenges of the present and the future.  They may begin to realize that they can help shape their destiny and, in doing so, help shape the destiny of others.  Students who aren’t bedeviled by interpreting the world around them through the lens of their own limited experiences might just perceive the terror of remaining in an attic during a bombing raid.  At the very least, they won’t go in search of midnight madness sales while death rains down on them.

The author, proving she's old
enough to understand history.
Jennifer Bohnhoff is a middle school social studies and language arts teacher in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  Her World War II novel Code: Elephants on the Moon is now available as an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords and will be available in paperback in August.  Her Civil War Novel, The Bent Reed, is scheduled for publication in September.

[2] Bruce Catton, Prefaces to History. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1970. p. 91

Friday, July 11, 2014

Novel Revision 101

In the spring I taught a four-week class on novel revision. The idea for this course came while I was on a run. I was listening to Cheryl Klein and James Monohan's Narrative Breakdown podcast on Revision Techniques, and it struck me how perfect this podcast would be as a starting place for a revision class. From there I developed a course for SCBWI members who'd drafted a middle grade or young adult manuscript but weren't quite sure how to go about revision.

Those who signed up for the course received copies of Darcy Pattison's NOVEL METAMORPHOSIS and Cheryl Klein's SECOND SIGHT. Because so many already had Cheryl's book, I gave those participants Mary Kole's WRITING IRRESISTIBLE KIDLIT.
Members were paired with partners and exchanged manuscripts. They focused on big-picture changes (character growth instead of punctuation, for example) and wrote a letter to their partner which focused on three things:
  • What works
  • What needs work
  • What stuck out
Participants also wrote "letters to a sympathetic reader," a technique Cheryl Klein sometimes uses with her authors when they begin the editing process together. The sympathetic letter focuses on
  • The real thing / key ideas / effect on reader the author is aiming for
  • Where the novel started from / idea came from
  • Big ideas the author is exploring
  • The things the author loves and wants to keep
  • The things the author knows are not working
  • How the author sees their main character (their purpose, journey, etc.)
  • What the book is now and where it should be
  • Mission / vision statement for the book
A sympathetic letter helps a writer to get back in touch with their initial ideas. It can also show how ideas have changed over the course of the draft. Though partners exchanged letters, its primary function is to teach a writer about their own work.

Are you interested in improving your revision techniques? Try writing your own sympathetic letter. Listen in to the Revision Techniques podcast. Find a copy of Cheryl and Darcy's books. 

For my posts in the months ahead, I'll share quotes and links from the class on revision and story's key components, character, plot. 

Here's to strengthening your writing, friends!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Ollie and the Science of Treasure Hunting

I had the pleasure of reading Erin Dionne’s newest book: Ollie and the Science of Treasure Hunting: A 14 Day Mystery, which comes out July 10, 2014. That’s tomorrow!! Congrats, Erin!!

First, the cover copy for Ollie:

After helping his best friend, Moxie, outsmart a gangster and uncover priceless artwork, Ollie plans to lay low at Wilderness Camp on the Boston Harbor Islands while the media frenzy blows over. Navigating new friends, new enemies, and a high-stakes game of tag, the last thing he needs is a mystery. But then Ollie meets Grey, an elusive girl with knowledge of the island’s secrets, including the legend of a lost pirate treasure, which may not be legend after all.

Ollie uses his wits and geocaching skills to keep long-lost treasure out of the wrong hands in this exciting adventure-mystery from fan-favorite middle grade author Erin Dionne.
  • Hardcover
  • ISBN 9780803738720
  • 10 Jul 2014
  • Dial Books for Young Readers
  • 9 – 12

My take: Ollie and the Science of Treasure Hunting is a fast-paced read with a memorable, authentic voice. I devoured it in two sittings. I think it would work well not only for independent reading but to read out loud to a class or to your own children. But, I wasn’t the only one who LOVED this book. Here’s what the experts said:

“A well-choreographed romp starring an engaging protagonist who richly deserves his turn in the spotlight.” –Kirkus Reviews

“A cast of likable campers, each with his or her own quirks, drive this fast-paced adventure.” –Booklist

SLJ called it “a breathless thrill ride.”

Erin is no stranger to middle grade fiction. Her other books include:

A little bit more about the author:
Photo Credit: Aran Gilmore

Erin Dionne is an assistant professor of Liberal Arts at a small college north of Boston, where she teaches freshman comp, lit classes, and some creative writing electives. When not actively promoting her writing with her great humor and enthusiastic understanding of the miseries and magic of middle school, Erin reminisces about her days in high school and college marching band. She lives with her husband and daughter in Framingham, Massachusetts.

Thanks for stopping by.

Monday, July 7, 2014

A WORD FROM THE READER: Guest post by Lyric Unger Bowditch

As we drive down from a weekend in NY, talk turns to books. Actually, my daughter and I began to discuss books we love. This happens a lot. Right now, my youngest is busy with his nose deep in one and my husband is driving. We left my eldest back in NY so the conversation was between Lyric and me. Lyric, who is now 15, has often been my sounding board, my first reader, first editor, first critic. She taught me a lot about writing for kids. First and foremost, don’t do it. That is, don’t ever write down to kids because they are smarter than most adults.

So I asked her to write her own thoughts about YA/MG literature. She is an excellent writer, reader, critic, poet, and I am so glad to invite her here today.

Welcome, Lyric.

In the words of Le Petit Prince, “grown-ups like numbers . . . You have to tell them, ‘I saw a house worth a hundred thousand francs.’ Then they exclaim, ‘What a pretty house!’” If a novel has a 4.5-out-of-5-star rating, in the eyes of such adults, it must be a good book. Too often, adults feel a societal obligation to bear through literature that may not truly interest them because of its social or intellectual prestige. Books written for adults don’t always require the same attention-to-reader that young adult literature does.

As a young adult, I can attest that if a novel doesn’t engage me, I don’t care how highly it was rated— I’m going to put it down. If the writer doesn’t paint a world so visceral that my own world disappears as I read, then, regardless of the writer’s esteem in literary circles across the nation, I won’t keep reading. You authors of young adult literature have the difficult task of writing wholly captivating stories, as the story is all that your audience cares about. Accordingly, young adult literature makes up some of the best literature on the whole planet (and the whole universe, for that matter).

As far as I’m concerned, the labels “young adult” and “middle-grade” are largely misleading. Young adult novels aren’t too callow or adolescent to be liked only by young adults. Rather, they’re exciting and enthralling enough to be liked by young adults. Any adult that claims to be too sophisticated to be interested by Harry Potter or too refined to enjoy Percy Jackson and the Olympians is, in fact, too uncultured to appreciate fine literature on its own merit and the pleasure of being lost in a good book.

-Lyric Unger Bowditch


I thought I’d include a photo of Lyric. Hers is beautiful face that shines from the cover of The Ravens of Solemano… so I’ve included that.

Thank you, my wonderful daughter! – eden unger bowditch