Monday, December 31, 2007

Friday, December 28, 2007


I walk 30 minutes to an hour EVERY DAY.

I lift weights three times a week - EVERY WEEK.

I'm SORE from playing Wii.

What's up with THAT?


For Christmas, I got a new silver baby cup for my collection.

This one has little teeth marks on it!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Wednesday, December 26, 2007


Christmas was wonderful. Just the three of us hunkered down in our cave. Stopped the world and got off.

I got a Wii! Yay! (I suck at tennis in the real world. I suck at tennis in the Wii world. No fair.)

My favorite part of the day is Christmas dinner.

Here I am basking in the glow of the infamous leg lamp.

Matty enduring holiday humiliation:

Monday, December 24, 2007

Writing Tip Tuesday

One of the most critical elements to master in writing children's books is PACING.

Children's books must move quickly.

Good pacing is achieved by:
  • Good story structure (setup, development, climax, resolution)
  • Variety (a mix of dialogue and narrative, large and small jumps in time, balance of tension with no tension)
  • Good use of chapter endings and beginnings
  • Eliminating unnecessary sentences, paragraphs, scenes, chapters
Chapter endings are, in my mind, one of the writers greatest tools. Use the chapter ending to create tension or suspense and to arouse curiosity (which keeps the reader reading).

Use chapter beginnings to jump forward in time, to introduce a new story element (such as a character or a situation), or to change setting.

Unnecessary scenes (or sentences or paragraphs, etc.) include repetitive or too-similar scenes.

Repeat after me:

Resist the urge to repeat yourself.

Repeat after me again:

Resist the urge to repeat yourself.

Repetition dilutes your writing and causes the author to intrude on the story by drawing attention to the writing. Repetition is self-conscious writing.

On the subject of repetition, Sol Stein says, "One plus one equals a half."

If you think the reader won't "get" something unless you repeat it, then maybe you haven't written it right the first time.

On the subject of unnecessary scenes, Kurt Vonnegut says, "Don't put anything in a story that does not reveal character or advance action."

Repetitiveness can also apply to characters. Do two characters fulfill the same purpose?

Is every character necessary? Does each character fulfill a purpose?

And one more time, repeat after me:

Resist the urge to repeat yourself.

Personal experience:
Like everyone else, I learn many of these things through personal experience. In my first novel, Beethoven in Paradise, the main character loves to walk. In the first draft, he went on a LOT of walks. It was a perfect chance for him to think - so I could throw in lots of meaty interior monologue. When all else failed in the story - Martin went for a walk.

My editor commented about that first draft (and I paraphrase here): I thought if that boy went on one more walk I'd go crazy.

I cut out about four good walks and replaced them with four good action scenes.

So, to wrap things up here, repeat after me:

Resist the urge to repeat yourself.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Dog lovers

Five reasons to like the dry cleaning delivery guy:

  1. He is consistent as all get-out - always there - every Tuesday and Friday - hasn't missed a day in four years.
  2. He is punctual as all get-out. You can set your clock by this guy - no lie.
  3. He ALWAYS has a smile. Through rain and sleet and snow and hail - he has a smile.
  4. He brings lots and lots of dog bones for my dogs every time. If they aren't outside, he leaves them in little hiding places in the garage for them to sniff out.
  5. THIS is his Christmas card:
I mean, how can you NOT like a guy like that?!

And with that, I'll take this opportunity to say SEASONS GREETINGS to all.

Friday, December 21, 2007


Well, dang! When the President, Queen, Empress and Big Kahuna of the Bashers World (that would be Sarah Miller, as if you had to be told) goes and gives me the Roar for Powerful Words award, I'm morally obligated to pass it along to other worthy bloggers.

Opting to choose bloggers who have not yet received this award (that I know of), I present the Roar for Powerful Words Award to the following:

Lisa Yee - because she is rip-snorting funny and hangs out with Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt and all those guys.

Professor Nana (Teri Lesesne) - because I enjoy her book reviews.

Deborah Wiles - because she is a Southern soul sister and has good school visit stories.

Kerry Madden - because she is my Smoky Mountain soul sister and has a fairy-loving daughter and has SUCH interesting family stories and good book recommendations.

Jama Rattigan - because she has great energy and spreads cookie love.

And Cynthia Leitich Smith - because, well, how could you NOT award that blog!!!!

I know I've left out tons of worthy blogs - but I'll leave it to someone else to spread the love.

Critique group holiday dinner

I have the most amazing critique group ever. We started SEVENTEEN years ago!

We've been through it all together, both professional and personal: joys, sorrows, frustrations, triumphs, contracts, no contracts, mistakes, embarrassments, recognitions, awards, no recognitions, no awards, acceptances, rejections, hallelujahs, gosh-darn-its, ups, downs, ins and outs.

Here we are at our annual holiday dinner:

(l to r) Carolyn DeCristofano, Wiesy MacMillan, Valerie Kerzner, Kim Marcus, Delia Weikert, Leslie Guccione, Mary Wisbach, Brian Lies, Deanna Garland

Same group except far left (back row) is me instead of Wiesy.

(l to r) Kim, Delia, Leslie

Wiesy (back to camera) Kim, Delia, Leslie, Brian, Mary's shoe

(l to r) Mary, Me, Valerie

(l to r) Deanna, Mary, Carolyn

(l to r) Delia, Leslie, Brian's shoe


(l to r) Wiesy, Mary, Brian, Deanna, Valerie, Kim

Thursday, December 20, 2007

A cool website for book lovers

Came across this website recently. Pretty cool....although, alas, it does not include children's books.

It does, however, include YA.

I had a feeling...

Uh, oh.

I had a feeling I knew what this was when the unhappy delivery guy schlepped it up my icy driveway.

I was right.

It even came with a night light version.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Writing Tip Tuesday

You can have the most fabulous opening ever.

You can have the most riveting story ever.

You can have the most wonderful characters ever.

But if you blow the ending....well, then, it's like serving brussel sprouts for dessert after the gourmet dinner.

Here's a story about an almost-blown ending.

(Warning: If you haven't read Moonpie and Ivy, this post will most likely mean nothing to you.)

I don't like fairy tale endings. I like realistic endings. But I also know that the ending of a child's book should at least be hopeful in order to be satisfying.

Here is the original ending of Moonpie and Ivy (prior to revision):

Then she lifted the shoebox and dumped the postcards out the window. They fluttered in the wind like butterflies, then drifted slowly to the ground, leaving a colorful trail on the dark road behind her.

I LOVED that! Those butterflies...that colorful trail on the dark road....

Lucky for me my editor is more brilliant than me and is not easily moved by fluttering butterflies and colorful trails.

She called me and told me no, no, no. That ending isn't right. First of all, she can't throw those postcards away. She needs them (i.e., kill the butterflies).

Second of all, metaphorically speaking, the dark road isn't behind her. The dark road is ahead of her (i.e., kill the colorful trail).

In addition to that stroke of genius, my editor made one small suggestion that gave the ending exactly what it needed: hope. She suggested that Aunt Ivy give Pearl her phone number.

That phone number gave Pearl a connection that she desperately needed - and left the reader feeling better about things and not so hopeless about Pearl's plight.

Here, then, is the revised ending, as it was published:
She opened the scrap of paper and squinted at it in the glow of the dashboard lights. "Ivy Patterson" was scrawled in big, hurried letters. Underneath, circled in red, was a phone number. Pearl closed her eyes and said the numbers in her head again and again and again and again. She put the envelope back in the shoebox. Ruby droned on and on. "Wait till you see..." "You're gonna love..." "I was thinking we could..." But Pearl wasn't listening. She hugged the shoebox, thinking maybe she could already feel that hope starting to grow inside her. Then she whispered Ivy's phone number over and over while she stared out at the dark road ahead.

Here are some of the reviews:

"O'Connor provides no magical happy ending for Moonpie and Ivy, but it is a hopeful one."

"What I most admire here is the author's courage with the plot, particularly the ending..."

"...the ending was very brave, tinted with hope but with the weight of reality hanging heavy within. I admire that [she] didn't tie it up with any pretty ribbons."

And two reviews from children:

"I hope you all have a chance to read it because I thought it was great even though at the end it's very sad. At the end I loved it"

"The ending, although not happily-ever-after style, left me feeling good."

So there - saved by an editor.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Taking their dictionaries to lunch? !

A letter I just received from a school librarian:

I just thought I would pass along to you what we are doing for a culminating activity. We are going to have a spelling bee in the same fashion described in the book. I am culling all the words from the book. Since we are only about an hour away from Disney World, the prize was going to be an adult and child’s ticket to the park. However, it proved to be too expensive, so the prize will be a bundle of books, including your How to Steal a Dog, and Me and Rupert.

One of the 3rd grade teachers has been stressing all year because her students are not progressing very quickly. Today she said she has four teams who are so excited about the spelling bee they are taking the dictionary to lunch with them to study words. I think this is very exciting and tangible way in which your book has inspired our students.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Friday, December 14, 2007

Tidy little sentences

Anyone who knows me knows my passion for organization.

So it would come as no surprise that as a child, I LOVED diagramming sentences. (We called it "parsing.")

Oh, the joy of it - all those little lines!

A place for every word and every word in its place.

So I was delighted to come across Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences by Kitty Burns Florey.

There's the simple little sentence:

The dog barked.

Then we get more complicated:

Mildred is a good dog but maybe she needs obedience school or some plain old-fashioned discipline.

THEN, hold onto your hats....check out this one:

I must make myself strong for the knocks that are to come, for no matter what you tell me something in me says that life for me holds more knocks than joys, and the blows will leave me crushed, stunned, wild-eyed and ready to die, while the joys will make me deliriously, wildly, gloriously happy.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The post wherein I explain chicken hair

Yesterday I showed you a photo of me discussing chicken hair with a group of students. (See below.)

Let me explain.

Like all writers, I often read or hear something that I file away, sometimes subconsciously....a name, a phrase, an object, etc.

One time I read an article in People Magazine (oh, yeah, like you don't read People Magazine) about some guy - I don't even remember who he was or why he was in the magazine - who described himself as having "chicken hair."

Now, how could I not file that one away, right?

Quite some time later, that phrase reappeared in Me and Rupert Goody:

[When Jennalee has come to visit Uncle Beau in the hospital after he has been struck by lightning...]

"Don't cry, Jennalee," Uncle Beau said in such a soft, sweet voice I thought I'd die.

"You gonna be all right, ain't you, Uncle Beau?" I said, inching closer to his bed.

"Course I'm gonna be all right," he said. "Hell, that lightning just recharged my batteries, is all. Liable to make me better than I was before. Might've ruined my hairdo, though. Look at this." He ducked his head toward me. "Gave me
chicken hair."

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Wrapping up the year

I just finished my last school visit of the year.

In 2007, I visited 31 schools.

I spoke to approximately 4500 students.

I gave 109 presentations.

I conducted 48 writing workshops.

I said the Pledge of Allegiance 27 times.

While brainstorming ways to show a messy room, I heard "dirty underwear" 73 times.

While brainstorming ways to show that someone feels sick, I heard fantastic barfing noises 84 times.

I waited in line behind 93 school buses.

I drank 17 teeny weeny cartons of milk.

I saw 18,432 chicken nuggets (but didn't eat 1.)

And I loved every minute of every day spent in a school.

Posing with students for the local newspaper at my last school presentation:

Here we are pretending to have a casual conversation about one of my books, as instructed by the photographer. In reality, I had opened the book to a random page so we could pretend to talk about it. On the page was a post-it note that said, "Chicken Hair." (It's a long story, but trust me, this is true). The kids were delighted to be talking about chicken hair.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Writing Tip Tuesday

Once your story has reached its climax, the party is over.

It's time to go home.

But you need to tidy things up before you go.

That's where the resolution comes in.

The resolution is another word for the ending of the story.

The resolution is the part of the story that comes after the climax.

Don't, I repeat - DON'T - drag the resolution on too long or you risk losing the reader. And what a pity it would be to lose the reader at this point in the story!!

Ask yourself the following questions about the resolution of your story:

  1. Is everything that was foreshadowed paid off? Any dangling threads? Anything left unresolved?
  2. Is everything that's paid off foreshadowed?
  3. Is the central question answered or the problem solved?
  4. Has the main character grown or changed?
It's critical to nail the ending and to make it satisfying.

Does your ending do justice to the story?

Next week, I'm going to tell you a story about how my editor saved an ending.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Getting to know you

All good writers know the importance of creating believable, realistic characters that the reader CARES ABOUT.

That's the key phrase: CARES ABOUT.

I was reading one of my 438 books about writing (something one does in lieu of writing), and came across this from Stein on Writing by Sol Stein:

I am convinced that we need to know the people in the car before we see the car crash.

In other words, we need to know the characters (and like them) in order to care about them.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Gift idea for readers

For those who like to read and eat at the same time.

Taking me back

You know how there are some things that you see or hear that take you back to your childhood?

Like, when you can almost feel exactly the way you felt when you were little - or you have a completely vivid memory of a moment in time....

This is one of those things that does it for me - a celluloid Christmas decoration that belonged to my grandmother.

Every time I look at it, I am instantly six again.

I can remember every detail of my grandmother's house, from the pattern on the carpet to the echoing sound her shoes made on the wood floor in the hallway.

I can feel my newly washed hair set in those weird little bobbypin pincurls.

I can hear the Lennon sisters singing Christmas carols on the Lawrence Welk Show.

And, boy, can I taste those homemade Christmas cookies....

Oh, to be six again.....

Friday, December 7, 2007

Another gift idea

Here's another great gift idea for the holidays.

It helps homeless children, is tax deductible, and doesn't have to be returned.

(And you won't have to go to the mall.)

A worthwhile gift

A donation to this organization would be a great gift this season.

(I checked them out on and they received the highest rating.)

My eBay fix for the day

I'm a collector.

I collect Smoky Mountain memorabilia.

I collect antique silver baby cups.

I also collect vintage state map tablecloths. I have thirteen states.

The first one I ever got was Florida, which is the easiest state to find. But since I use my tablecloths a lot (on my porch in the summer), and since they are old, some of them eventually wear out.

I've been needing to replace my Florida tablecloth and was thrilled to find this one on eBay:

I've NEVER seen another one like this. Those shells around the edge, the soft colors. It's a nice big size - and real vintage (even has the authentic tag).

So I was determined I was going to win this one.

And I did!


(Too bad it's 20 degrees outside and I won't be eating on my porch any time soon.)

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Kids say the darnedest things

(....and if you're old enough to remember that show...high five!)

Letters from kids - I love 'em. Check these out:

My favorite part in How to Steal a Dog is when Toby starts blurting out stuff and in Fame and Glory when Harlem gets glasses and can see. You rock.

My favorite of your books is How to Steal a Dog because it’s funny and sad at the same time.


The best part I like is when they still [sic] the dog and hide him. I hope you come out with more grate [sic] books.


Your books are the right combination of sad, happy, and excited.

My favorite part of How to Steal a Dog is when Georgina met Mookie. It would scare me if my dog ate a stranger’s food. Especially a three fingered bum’s food.

What I want for Christmas

Oh yeah - hours of fun and wasted time! (Caution: Site has sound.)

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Tree books

Well, these are cool!

Thanks to BB-Blog for this.

The Sevens Meme

I've been tagged by Jennifer Thermes for the seven-facts-about-myself meme. (I love Jennifer' s blog, by the way.)

So here goes:

  1. I am ridiculously organized and have an almost-fetish for containers, files, boxes, labels, baskets and anything that smacks of organization. (And I can put my hands on the receipt for heating oil from 1998.)
  2. I can't go to sleep without reading something (but it usually ends up only being about a paragraph).
  3. When I was pregnant, I craved General Foods International Coffee - Cafe Francais flavor only - and have had it nearly every day for the last twenty years. I take it everywhere I go. I even took it to Europe with me. (pathetic, huh?)
  4. I've been known to go back and check the stove burners after I've already gotten in the car.
  5. The only time I ever tried to write a picture book, I failed miserably and turned it into a novel.
  6. I ADORE dogs. Love 'em, love 'em, love 'em.
  7. I've always wished I could have been in a Broadway musical (but I can't sing worth a darn).
Now, I think most of my blog friends have been tagged for this already. But if you're reading this and HAVEN'T been tagged - then, tag - you're it!

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Writing Tip Tuesday

Okay, so you've set your story up, giving the reader some backstory, revealed the central question, and nailed a catalyst (inciting incident) to get the story going. Then you've moved the story along, scene by scene, each scene revolving around the central question. You've tossed in a few turning points to keep the pace and tension up. (All these discussed earlier...)

Now you're there....

at the climax.

I only have three significant things to say about the climax:

  1. It must answer the central question or solve the problem raised in the setup.
  2. It needs to happen just before the resolution.
  3. Once you reach the climax, get the heck out of the story.
That last rule is so important, I'm going to repeat it:

Once you reach the climax, get the heck out of the story.


You're done.


Close the book and go home.

Do not linger, dawdle, or loiter.

The reader doesn't want to hear from you any more.

Got it?

Nothing will ruin the ending of your story more than continuing on longer than you need to -

- and once you have reached the climax, the only thing that's needed is the resolution, which I'll discuss next week.

P.S. To give you an example: In Moonpie and Ivy, the climax of the story is when Pearl's mother returns. From that point on, the story moves very quickly - almost racing to the end. But I knew that the climax created an emotional impact that would have been diffused or totally lost if I had gone on much longer after that. I knew I had to GET OUT OF THAT STORY. So they got in the car and drove away. The End. No loitering for me.

Monday, December 3, 2007

I smell a rat

When I teach writing workshops with kids, I remind them to think about the five senses when showing setting, incorporating details, etc.

Sometimes we brainstorm things we see, taste, hear, etc.

When I get to smell, I'm always a little amused at how well I can fake it.

I have no sense of smell.

Never have.

Can't smell a thing.

But experience and observation have taught me enough about smells that I'm pretty good at faking it. (Although sometimes I have to ask my critique group if a smell is accurate or makes sense.)

I've learned about things you are supposed to smell.

Out of curiosity, I went back through some of my books to see examples of how I faked, er, I mean, incorporated smells.

From Moonpie and Ivy:

They sat like that for a while, Ivy stroking Pearl's hair, Pearl keeping her head on Ivy's bony shoulder, smelling her bacon-grease smell.
[Ivy works in a diner.]

Pearl pushed her face so deep into the pillow she could barely breathe. Then she sniffed as hard as she could. Nothing. Not even the tiniest trace of Shalimar. Pearl had sniffed that pillow every night, and every night the scent had faded a little more.

From Fame and Glory in Freedom, Georgia:

Then she came out and sat beside me on the porch again. She smelled like medicine. [She had been caring for her elderly father.]

You think Harlem's gonna like this pie? I said, breathing in a whiff of sweet cinnamon smell.

She pushed the afghan aside and came over to me. I smelled her talcum powder and I knew I was about to feel better about myself.

From How to Steal a Dog:

...his breath smelled like tunafish.

That tunafish odor swirled around us inside our beach towel tent.

I put it
[a letter] up to my nose and sniffed. I could actually smell my teacher, Mr. White. Sort of like soap and toothpaste and coffee all mixed together.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

I'm such a geek

There's this cool new feature of Apple's new operating system (Leopard) called "Back to my Mac" where you can share screens. So, here is the screen from one Mac on the screen of the other Mac (does that make sense?).
Now, I don't really know why you need to do this - but, hey, it's so much fun!

(And - you can just drag things from one computer to the other without using firewire. Now THAT is useful!)