Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Bye, y'all


I'm leaving tomorrow for a good old-fashioned roadtrip - down South! Yeehaw!

Flying into Atlanta, picking up the rental car and hittin' the road: Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana.

I plan on getting loads of inspiration for my next book - and eating lots of boiled peanuts - and drinking sweet tea.

Back in a week, y'all.....

Smoky Mountain Kitsch

Because I love the Smoky Mountains so much, I collect Smoky Mountain kitsch. (eBay, eBay, how I love thee, eBay...)

I have a Smoky Mountains toothpick holder:

A Smoky Mountain thermometer:

A large collection of Smoky Mountain plates of all colors and sizes (enough to have a smokin' Smoky Mountain dinner party):

But my favorite is this Smoky Mountain musicbox. The song it plays is, what else...On Top of Old Smoky.

I got into a bidding war on eBay for that musicbox...and LOST! I was so devastated, I contacted
the winner and begged, pleaded, threatened, stalked and, finally, paid an obscene amount of money to force her to sell it to me.

Anybody got any Smoky Mountain kitsch you wanna give me? What I want more than anything is a vintage Smoky Mountain tablecloth. (I have a collection of vintage state map tablecloths, but the Smokies would be the bomb....)

Smoky Mountain High

The Smoky Mountains = My Heart's Home.

I recently met my Smoky Mountain Soul Sister, Kerry Madden, online. We realized we have a lot in common, particularly our love of the beautiful Smoky Mountains. We both write books for children set there.

Her latest is Louisiana's Song, which is the second of a trilogy. I haven't read it yet because I'm currently reading the first in the trilogy, Gentle's Holler. I'm loving loving loving reading about those places I'm so familiar with. She captures the setting to a tee. Her love of the mountains comes right through the pages of that book. (And you gotta love a dog named Uncle Hazard!)

I can't wait to read the others.

(My book, Me and Rupert Goody, and my upcoming novel, Greetings from Nowhere, May 2008, are also set in the Smoky Mountains.)

I grew up at the base of those mountains and have many wonderful childhood memories about my time in them. I went to summer camp there. I've sat in the backseat of my family car as it zigzagged back and forth and around and around those mountain roads. I've hiked along those mossy, fern-lined trails. I've had picnics beside the flowing mountain creeks.

I've jumped from rock to rock in those creeks and waded in the clear, icy water.

My parents loved those mountains, too. My mother spent the vacations of her youth there.

Even my grandparents spent many happy times there. Here they are in Gatlinburg, Tennessee (with an unknown person):

In the background of the above photo is one of those little mountain motels. Greetings from Nowhere is about one of those motels.

Monday, May 28, 2007

The Art of Procrastination

To avoid writing, I read about how to write.

It works every time.

My current Tool of Procrastination is Elizabeth George's terrific how-to book, Write Away.

Per Ms. George: "I've long believed that there are two distinct but equally important halves to the writing process: One of these is related to art; the other is related to craft. Obviously, art cannot be taught....But it's ludicrous to suggest and short-sighted to believe that the fundamentals of fiction can't be taught."

I find that my writing benefits from taking some refresher courses from time to time - rereading those writing how-to books I love - studying character development and dialogue and even that simple little motto: show, don't tell.

Then I come back to my stories a lot freer to enjoy the art of writing.

"The art of writing is what you get to do once you become familiar with the craft."

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Dear Mrs. O'Connor (last time, I promise)

Okay, I just couldn't resist a few more. These are the last, I promise:

"You must hate the mailman for giving you your rough draft back with red marks all over it from your editor."

"I just do not know how you can stand seeing red marks on your papers. Seeing red marks makes me feel sick."

"Yesterday after school, I went to the library and checked out one of your books on Eleanor Roosevelt." [um, I've never written a book about Eleanor Roosevelt]

"Thank you for sharing your writing techniques with us. My technique is to stare at trees."

"I like your books. I don't want to be a writer when I grow up."

[After one of my writing workshops] "We all now know that we can make a story better by using 'show, don't tell' and by not using words that end in y."

Saturday, May 26, 2007

These are for the birds

How cool are these? (Thanks to BB Blog.)

Dear Mrs. O'Connor again

More from those funny darned kids:

"Does your hand ever get tired writing a book?"

"When you were speaking, I noticed that you were very calm and not really tense."

"You are a great writer and I will meet many people in my life but you will stay with my soul and heart."

[After I told the class that my cure for writer's block is to eat a lot of Oreos] "Your Oreo theory is very accurate."

My favorite:

"Thank you for sharing your books and telling us how much trouble it is to write a story."

Friday, May 25, 2007

Dear Mrs. O'Connor

I have a great collection of letters from kids, who, "say the darnedest things". (If you remember that TV show, you're old, like me.) A few of my favorites:

"I have never written to an author before, so you'll have to bear with me."

"You've been really awesome in jamming the steps into our heads." [He's referring to a writing workshop.]

"I have read some of Moonpie and Ivy but I had to return it."

"It must be frustrating looking up all those facts and getting all those red marks. I hate writing."

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Interesting comment

I was checking out of the garden department of Home Depot yesterday and had a lot of items in my cart. I had sorted and arranged them so that they would be easier for the checkout person. Like, all the impatiens together in a tray...all the herbs together...the tomatoes plants by size of pot.

The checkout gal commented, "You're so organized...but in a quiet way."

That was an interesting comment.

Before I could respond, she said, "Well, you know, some people are so aggressive about being organized."

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Alice's garden

(See post below titled Life Imitates Art)

This is Alice's garden. See? All overgrown. It used to be sunflowers and tomatoes and squash.


Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Life Imitates Art

Like all authors, I often use bits and pieces of real life in my writing.

But it's not that often that I come across something specific in real life after I've used it in my writing.

For instance, one time I was in the grocery store and a little girl came in who WAS one of my main characters. I was so shocked. I could not stop staring at her. (The character was Bird from Fame and Glory in Freedom, Georgia.) Instead of seeing the girl first and writing the character, I created the character and then saw her.

Life imitating art.

Yesterday, it happened again.

In my next novel, Greetings from Nowhere, one of the main characters is an elderly woman who has recently lost her beloved husband. He just keeled right over in the tomato garden. His garden eventually becomes overtaken by weeds (and becomes an important story element).

In real life, there was an elderly woman in my town named Alice. Such a perfect name. She went to my church and came every Sunday and used the special earphones for the hearing impaired. She crocheted dish towels for the Ladies Alliance. She lived on a main road in a little white house with a very small rectangle of a vegetable garden in the side yard, surrounded by a chicken-wire fence. I've passed by it a bajillion times.

She died not long ago.

Yesterday, I drove by her house. It's empty. It looks like an empty house. The yard is full of dandelions.

And her vegetable garden is completely overgrown with weeds.

It looked so sad.

Life imitating art.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Grace Lin's Book Launch Party Part 1

I went to Grace Lin's book launch party on Saturday. Wow, that girl can plan a party! Here's how it went:

I took the train in to the city (Boston). On the way, I played Mario Brothers on my Nintendo and got irritated by people talking on cellphones (which was everyone but me).

As soon as I arrived at the party, the first person I saw was Grace, looking so pretty and happy and smart and like someone who should definitely be named Grace.

Here we are (we got our glasses at a two-for-one sale):

Okay, so then I headed for the food. But it was so dang pretty, I wasn't about to be the first one to mess it up:

I guess when you have a book launch party, you get hugged a lot. This is Leo Landry hugging Grace (or Grace hugging Leo Landry).

Grace Lin's Party Part 2

Okay, so now I've gotta mingle. Here I go...

This is Horn Book's designer and production manager, Lolly Robinson (in red, back to camera. Sorry, Lolly) and friend (I can't remember her name but she went to Harvard, so, hey, I remembered something) talking to Blue Rose Girl, Elaine Magliaro.

Lolly and I were convinced we had met before. But we tossed out every conceivable event, from PLA to IRA to ALA to NPA (National Partyers Association) but no luck.

She was recording a podcast for Horn Book and I got to talk a bit about my new book (How to Steal a Dog). Lucky for me, it was just reviewed by Horn Book, so I had something Horn Bookish to say on the podcast.

Here is the same group, joined by Little Brown editor, Alvina Ling. I love her blue rose ponytail.

Here is Grace with Pat Keogh (Foundation for Children's Books and Creative Arts Coordinator for the town of Weston, Massachusetts). Pat is the world's biggest supporter of children's literature. She's amazing. She's read every children's book and knows every children's author on the planet. I think.

Grace Lin's Party Part 3

This is Alvina with another Blue Rose Girl, Libby Koponen.

Libby and Alvina selling books and raffle tickets:

Grace preparing to announce the lucky winner of a piece of her original artwork. The proceeds from the raffle sale went to Dana Farber Cancer Institute:

Here, Grace is thinking, "Yikes, how did these chocolate rats get into the raffle bucket?" (I was promised a chocolate rat in my goodie bag, but I got a chocolate seashell. Now seashells are very nice. But how can a seashell compare to a rat? I know, I know, Grace is thinking, "Good grief, Barbara, get over it, wouldya?)

The woman in the background watching Grace's surprise over the chocolate rats in the raffle bucket is Jennifer Cusack (holding blue coat and books), Executive Director of the Foundation for Children's Books in Boston.

Great job, Grace! Everything was perfect.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Missing it...

This is the first time in about 11 years that I haven't gone to the annual New England SCBWI conference.

It feels weird.

I miss it.

(And I know Kim Marcus is there partying with EVERYONE.)

Spreading the word

Because I love the Shrinking Violets blog and I love independent bookstores, I'm helping to spread the word about the Shrinking Violets' contest: The Ten Best Reasons to Shop Your Local Bookstores."

I went to Grace Lin's book launch party today! It was awesome. The girl can plan a party!

I have lots of pics and stuff. More later.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Wanna feel old?

How to Feel Old in One Easy Lesson:

Make many, many trips up to your son's sixth floor walk-up apartment in New York City carrying giant armloads of stuff after spending many hours buying giant armloads of stuff at Bed, Bath and Beyond.

Then spend many many hours putting together Ikea furniture - with lots and lots of parts and little wrenches and screws and weird visual-only instructions that nobody uses anyway.

Then spend many many hours carrying large armloads of cardboard (from the boxes that the Ikea furniture came in) down to the trash cans on the first floor (and of course, walk back up to that sixth floor apt).

I'm not sure which I burned more of: calories or cash.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Big Apple

I'm off to New York City for a few days to help my son move into his new apartment in the East Village.

Maybe this one will be bigger than his current walk-in closet, um, I mean, apartment.

I'm all about that Dixie Chicks song: WIDE OPEN SPACES. Those itty bitty New York apartments are just so, well, itty bitty.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

I've come a long way, baby

This is the first book I ever wrote. Age twelve.

Here's what it says: "Aw, Mom! I'm right in the middle of a keen western and you ask me to dry the dishes. How 'bout Skip, he's not busy?" complained Dixie Johnson, combing her brown fingers through her long blond ponytail.

"Drying dishes isn't a boy's job. Besides, Skip's busy and all you do is sit around the house all day," remarked her mother.

"I wish I was a boy," complained Dixie as she struggled into the kitchen. "Anyway, I do lots more things than Skip. I dust, clean my room, make beds, clean the stables, feed the horses, and so on and so on and so on."

We've come a long way, baby. (Although, come to think of it, I'm still dusting and making beds. Luckily, no stables to clean.)

P.S. Wanna hear something weird? My mother-in-law's name is Dixie. I mean, what are the odds?

Monday, May 14, 2007

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

I'm not one of those authors who is superstitious about discussing a new book idea or a work in progress.

But sometimes, I just don't know enough about it to even talk about it. It's like trying to describe a dream to someone - when some things are kinda hazy.

I'm still in the hazy place with my new one - but one thing is for sure. I can never ever start a book without a title. AND, most of the time I have the title before I have the story. For instance, with Moonpie and Ivy, that's what I started with and only that. I had no idea who Moonpie and Ivy were.

AND, I never ever change a title. I'm always fascinated when authors do that - or, even more fascinated when they write the whole book with no title!

For me, the title is the very essence of the book. It is the heart and soul of the book, in some ways. The story would have no heartbeat without the title.

For me.

I know every author works differently.

So, with that said, here is my new title: The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis.

Now, here's where I am with that: I know who Popeye and Elvis are. I have a very clear image of them and the other secondary characters.

I'm just not too clear on the small adventure part (the, um, PLOT).

So I'm wondering, for most writers, which comes first: the story or the title? The chicken or the egg?

Friday, May 11, 2007

Shut up and write

I had my last school visit of the year yesterday in Rhode Island. It was a great day with super kids but now I am so ready to say YAHOOOO!

I can finally stop talking about writing and actually write.

My summer goal = finish (ha!) first draft of mid-grade novel and revamp web site

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Raw writing

When I saw this website (I can't remember where I found that link, so I can't give credit where credit is due....sorry...maybe Fuse 8?), I had to read the book. I mean, how can you not?

I've only read three stories so far - but one word comes to mind about Ms. July's writing: raw. No self-conscious rules, no points of view or story arc or show, don't tell, etc. Just heart on the sleeve, raw writing. Granted, it's kinda, well, "out there." But we sure do have room on our library shelves for "out there" writing, I think.

I'm likin' it - a lot.

I'll let you know how I feel when I finish the rest of the book.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Never Steal a Dog

Like most writers, I get asked often to donate books for various fundraising events. And like most writers, I don't have a warehouse full of free books in my backyard. So, like most writers, I have to say "no" once in a while. (Hey, you writers out there - you do say "no" once in a while, right? Don't tell me I'm the only stingy tightwad in the world....)

But recently I was asked to donate a copy of How to Steal a Dog to a fundraiser for the Animal Protective Foundation. Children were going to be writing essays and making posters about being kind to animals and winning books for a prize. Now, we all know I would surely burn for eternity if I said no to THAT. And being the animal lover I am, well, of course I had to donate a book.

I mean, I dare you to say no to this:

Or how about saying no to this (his name is Romeo, by the way):

And here are the winners:

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

My one and only Harry Potter post - ever

Fuse 8 said in a recent post that every kidlit blogger is contractually obligated to write at least 2 Harry Potter pieces per week. Alas, I will be breaking that contract. (Although, maybe children's author blogs aren't the same as kidlit blogs?)

I am not a Harry Potter person. I've read the first two and after that.....not so much.

I just finished copyedits for my next middle grade novel (Greetings from Nowhere). One of the secondary characters was named Clyde Riddle.

FSG's world's-best-copyeditor, Elaine Chubb (who RETIRED May 1!!! Elaine, how could you???), pointed out the fact that many children may relate the name Riddle with Harry Potter - and in a negative way.

Who knew?

I confess that at first I sorta kinda doubted her. I mean, were kids SO into Harry Potter that they would get hung up about the name of a secondary character? But I ran it by an author message board comprised of many well-respected folks and they all agreed with her.

So....I had to CHANGE his name. Now, understand, that's a big, big, big deal for me. I never ever ever change names of characters. Names are really really really important to me. I can't even START a book until all the character names are perfect. So to change one was PAINFUL.

But, I did it.

There. That's my Harry Potter post.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Yeah, right...

Them: What do you do?

Me: I'm a writer.

Them: Really? What do you write?

Me: Children's books.

Them: Oh, wow. I've been thinking about doing that, too! I've always wanted to write a children's book.

The Other Them: I've written lots of children's stories. My 4-year-old loves them. Maybe you can help me get them published.

The Other Other Them: My third cousin's girlfriend's sister wrote a book and found this publishing company that just loves it and is going to publish it. She just has to send them a one-time processing fee of $10,000 first.

The Other Other Other Them: My nine-year-old has written the most adorable book about a talking tadpole named Timmy. Her teacher thinks it's fabulous. Maybe you could give her some advice on how to get it published.

Me: Sigh

As a result, I confess that I've developed a rather cynical response to the ole I'm-a-writer, he's-a-writer, everybody's-a-writer stuff (especially children's writing since, you know, it's so much easier and all).

But recently I ran into a guy who had done some carpentry work at our house and when he introduced his wife to me, he added, "She's a writer, too."

There it was, rearing it's ugly head: my "yeah, right" attitude. But I think I hid it well and politely asked about her work. She told me she had published an adult novel a few years ago and was in the process of working on another.

Yeah, right.

But, out of curiosity, I got a copy of her book.

It totally blew me away. The writing was wonderful. The voice fresh and distinctive. The settings vivid. The characters nothing short of amazing. The story riveting.

I was knocked off of my "yeah, right" pedestal and landed with a "lesson learned" thud.

I hopefully redeemed myself by writing her a gushing, glowing, raving, I-so-admire-your-work note.

That book, by the way, was Outside Valentine by Liza Ward.

Lesson learned.

P.S. to Liza: I'm sorry, okay? Lesson learned.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

My best friend, Cyndi

One of my favorite blogs is Shrinking Violets, Marketing for Introverts. There was recently a post nominating Cynthia Rylant as the Coolest Introvert in Children's Literature.

I TOTALLY second that vote. I adore Cynthia Rylant. She's my literary crush, no doubt about it.

I consider her my ultimate, all-time, tip top, A-one inspiration of all time. Missing May spoke to me like no other book. Her voice. Her sense of place. Her heart.

So when my book, Me and Rupert Goody, was published, I sent her a copy and told her how much she had inspired me. I told her that she had continued the chain of creative spirit. (Good line, huh?)

Well, guess what?

She wrote me back! I mean wrote - as in by hand - on pretty pink note paper.

I've blurred the signature cause, well, this is the nasty ole internet and all. But trust me, she really wrote me. She said all these nice things about my book. Like, she thought my novel was "lovely." I mean, who else could use that word in a normal sentence and sound normal?

Oh, and she liked the goodness of the characters' hearts. Isn't that just so Cynthia Rylant?

And get this, here was her favorite line in the book (I'm not making this up): "I ain't eating another pinto bean as long as I live."

AND she signed the note CYNDI RYLANT.

Not Cynthia.

Oh no - not for me, her new best friend.

It's CYNDI (that's right, with a Y and an I)

And check out that little heart. I mean, come on!

So, Cyndi, if you're out there: Keep up the good work (and call me - we'll do lunch.)

Friday, May 4, 2007

Characters to die for

I find obituaries to be a wealth of inspiration for characters. For instance, I often scour the obituaries from my mother's hometown newspaper (Fountain Inn, South Carolina) for some good ole Southern names.

I'm getting ready to start a new book (I swear, I really am...tomorrow). Some of the characters are still a bit foggy. Yesterday there was an obituary that brought one of them immediately into focus.

In the obituary, a friend of the deceased commented that she "believed in fresh air and sensible shoes." I love that!

But the best part was when one of her relatives said that there was something by her bedside just a few days before she died: a chronology of the kings and queens of England that she was memorizing again.

First of all, I love that she was memorizing the kings and queens of England. How cool is that?

But the best part is that she was doing it again. So, she had done it once already, had forgotten them at some point, and was doing it again! I mean, double cool.

I am so using that.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Tracking blogs

I'm sure there are plenty of ways to track blogs conveniently, but here's a nifty web site that does that for you. Each time the blogs you enter into it have a new entry, it shows up in bold. It's one-stop blog-viewing.

The site is called Bloglines.

(For you Live Journalers - you can add non-LJ blogs to your friends if you have the feed address. Gee, I sound so wonderfully geeky like Mitali.)

And, of course, there is the wonderful, jacketflap blogreader, where you can also enter all your favorites.

But if anybody knows a better way, let me know, would ya?

New newsletter from Farrar, Straus & Giroux

FSG Notes

Nasty or noble?

Okay, so there's this web site that tracks Amazon rankings. It gives you the best, worst, and average rankings for whatever books you enter. But the coolest thing is that it keeps your customized list of books in order of rank - and updates constantly (and I mean constantly - trust me, I've checked.)

Now, if you are a nasty person, you list your book along with other books that came out at the same time or books by people you don't like, or books by people you do like, and then you take great gleeful delight when your book rises to the top, pushing those other books down, down, down, squashing them like a bug.

But then again, those other books might be squashing yours like a bug. So nasty people just have to take their chances in the bug-squashing department.

And if you are a really nasty person, you order lots of your own books just to get the cheap thrill of taking the others down. (But then, that's kind of economically stupid just for the sake of a fleeting bug-squashing high.)

But, of course, a noble person like me just sits back and cheers when other books rise to the top - and I don't worry one little iota if my book becomes a squashed bug.

I mean, we can't take these things personally, right?

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Fifth grade writers again

I'm still in the midst of a fifth grade writing workshop. They're writing biographies of a parent or grandparent. Today we worked on openings. Check out this one:

The broken windows let in a cool breeze.

If that doesn't grab ya, I don't know what would! I can't wait to see what the heck those broken windows are!

I mean, these are fifth graders, people!

Oh - and another one started out like this:

Flip, flip, flip. Jane Doe turned the pages of a book. As a child, Jane always had a book glued to her hand.