Thursday, February 28, 2013

Things I Love Thursday

 I love writing like this.

Written by a FIFTH GRADE boy, showing the setting of summer at the beach:

Jack took off his sandals and stepped onto the hot sand and let his feet sink in. The breeze slapped his face, but he liked the way it cooled him down. He looked up and saw seagulls circling the shore, searching for leftover food to snatch. The sound of crashing waves caught his attention. He ran past people lying down on the ground getting burned by the heat of the intense sun.

He dived into the crystal clear warm water. Whenever Jack did this, he was transferred to a new world of reef jungles. He opened his eyes and saw schools of fish with amazing patterns, like rainbow zigzags or polka dots. He saw rays gliding through the ocean like planes in the air. Sharks ruled the reef and ate whoever they chose. Jellyfish floated through the ocean. They were amazing with how they puffed their bodies to fly. Small fish darted past his face, studying him, wondering if he was an ally or a foe.

He explored the coral pathways and tunnels. But then the moment he always dreaded came. Time for more air. He floated up to the ocean surface, knowing he would be back soon.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Writing Tip Tuesday

Yogi Bera said: You can't hit and think at the same time.

I would amend that to say: You can't write and think at the same time.

By that I mean, sometimes (most times), your best writing will come when you don't think so hard about it - when you let it just flow out of you in a zenlike way.

That is certainly true for me.

I can feel when my writing sounds forced - when it doesn't flow well.

And those times are almost always the result of thinking too much.

Natalie Goldberg calls this writing with your monkey mind - as opposed to your wild mind (in her book, Wild Mind: Living the Writer's Life).

Katherine Paterson says: Send your inner critic off on vacation and just write the way little children play. You can't be judge and creator at the same time.

So my advice is to save your monkey mind for revising - but while you are creating, use your wild mind.

Don't think too hard about it.

Make sense?

Monday, February 25, 2013

Great teachers help produce great students

I had the pleasure of teaching writing workshops at Downey Elementary School in Westwood, MA, recently.

It was one of the best experiences I've ever had in a school.

The excitement in the air was palpable.

I was greeted by this:

When I signed in in the front office, the receptionist told me how excited the school was about my visit.

The parent volunteer was busily working on the many, many book orders they had.

The teachers were friendly, enthusiastic and 100% engaged in the workshops.

The principal was ever-present throughout the school, smiling and calling each child by name.

The media specialist was welcoming (and happily rearranged her schedule to accommodate my issues with that darn blizzard we had), displayed my books throughout the library and had made sure they were available for all classes.

And the students? Well, they could NOT have been more prepared, more enthusiastic, more respectful, or more friendly. They put 100% effort into the workshops. And one thing I loved: if a student read a particularly good piece of writing, the others complimented him/her and occasionally even clapped.

They sent me this the night before the Show, Don't Tell workshop to show me how they couldn't wait for my visit the next day. 

I loved hearing about and seeing how the students had prepared for my visit and used my books for projects.

One class made a display of various elements that they were "tracking" as they read my books.

Here are some of them:

I am tracking to try to find 4 little clues that the author is scattering into the story to help me solve the mystery.

I'm tracking 8 examples of repetition in the story. [AND] I am tracking examples of where the 2 plots might connect.

I am tracking examples of how the 2 main characters' traits change throughout the story.

I am tracking similes in The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis.

I am tracking the author's use of onomatopoeia and I'm finding 10 examples of it throughout the story.

I'm tracking 5-6 distractions that get in the way of solving the problem.

I am tracking how the main character's motivation to steal the dog increases because of the different events. I will have 4-5 examples.

I'm tracking how the author is showing something about herself through the story.

 Aren't those great?!

Those teachers were great.

Those students were great.

I love seeing how those two things go hand in hand.

And how can you not love a teacher who looks like this on Crazy Hair Day? Thank you, Ms. Carbone and all the teachers at Downey.


Thursday, February 21, 2013

Things I Love Thursday

It seems kind of silly, but it's true: I love this tack hammer.

It belonged to my grandfather. 

It's the only tool of his that my mother kept and the only thing I wanted when she passed away.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Writing Tip Tuesday

When it comes to novels:

Just because it really happened doesn't mean it "works."

Just because it really happened doesn't make it interesting.

Just because it really happened doesn't make it credible.

Writers draw from real life.

Of course.

That's often what sparks our imaginations.

That's what adds "life" to our writing - gives it the sensory "glow" it needs, the characters who seem so real, the dialogue that draws the reader into the story, etc.

But fiction writing is still fiction.

It usually needs a heck of a lot more "spark" than real life.

I can't tell you how many times I've heard a writer respond to a negative critique or questionable comment about their story by saying, "But that's the way it really happened."

My response to that is: "Yeah. So what?"

If it isn't interesting...

If it doesn't "work"....

If it isn't believable (even if it really happened!) ...

It might need a dose of FICTION.

So my advice today is: Draw from real life. Use real life for your spark, your seed, your first breath. But if you're writing fiction, add a layer (or two or three), twist it in a new direction, shake it up, throw in some spice, take it farther.....

You're writing FICTION.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Things I Love Thursday

I love kids who love to write and earnestly seek advice from authors.

I was at a school recently and did a basic author presentation, followed by a writing workshop. 

A 4th grade boy came to the presentation with a spiral notebook to take notes. He was the only one out of 100 students that did so.

When I went to his classroom to do the workshop, he called me over during one of the writing exercises. In his notebook he had written:

The Steps to Writing a Book

Step 1: Idea [Which he added based on the information he had learned from my presentation]

Step 2:

Step 3:

Step 4: 


"So, what are the steps to writing a book after the idea?" he asked me.

Ummmm, well, ummm....gee.

*thinks quickly*

"Character," I said. For me, a book starts with character.

He scribbled that down and looked up, eyebrows lifted, waiting for Step 3.

So I gave the old formula of: problem, then obstacle, then solution.

He jotted those down.

And then I remembered setting. Setting is an integral part of the story.

He jotted that down.

But then setting isn't Step 6. Setting belongs up there toward the top.

This was getting all muddied up.

It felt so unsatisfying.

And then I realized that How to Steal a Dog (the book he had read) didn't really fit that classic problem/obstacle/solution formula as clearly as other problem novels. 

That boy and I needed to talk, discuss, brainstorm.

But, alas, I had a whole classroom of kids needing my attention. So I left him with his Steps to Writing a Book, wishing I had more time.

BUT, he did give me food for thought. After I left, I thought a lot about The Steps to Writing a Book

There are times when they are clear: Step 1, Step 2, Step 3.

And times when they aren't.

I hope some day that boy has a chance to figure it out. (And me, too. Ha!)


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

What It's All About

Honestly, nothing is more rewarding or motivating for a children's author than receiving letters from teachers like this one:
A bigger thanks for writing books [my students] want to devour!    They can see themselves and their friends in the characters you create.  This is HUGE for them....

Most of them are reluctant readers when they first come to me.  We work hard all year to find books they will love.  Your books are my "go-tos" and can always, always, always hook them.  Owen, Viola, Travis, Stumpy, Elvis, Popeye, Aggie.  My students get them and fall in love with them.

Thank you to the teacher who sent me that. Now I'm ready to get back to writing more books.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Writing Tip Tuesday

So, I thought I'd continue the theme of "not every rule/process/technique is right for everyone."

Sometimes (well, okay, a lot of times) writers say to other writers, "Don't worry about that messy writing right now. Just keep going and you can fix it later."


"Writers should write every day."


"You need to practice writing. It doesn't matter what - just jot down stream-of-consciousness stuff or whatever - it's the practice that counts."


"Writers should keep journals."

But you know what?

That advice just doesn't work for me.

Trust me, I've tried all those things.

Like my post about character development exercises, I feel strongly that every writer is different.

What works for one doesn't work for everyone.

I think it's important to try new ways of doing things, but to ultimately find your groove and your style.

I can't just "keep going" on a piece and "worry about it later." I need to tidy up as I go along. That's the way I work.

I hate, loathe and despise writing for the sake of writing.

I write when I have something worthwhile to write that feels good writing.

I don't want to "practice" by writing crapola that means nothing to me.

That kind of writing does absolutely nothing to help me as a writer; it only frustrates me and makes me want to watch Judge Judy reruns or vacuum my closet floors instead.

AND - I don't feel that I have to write every day.

Some days I need to think about writing.

Thinking about writing is part of the process of writing. My BEST writing is a product of much thought.

And some days I need to watch Judge Judy reruns.

That's my style. That's what works best for me.

As for journaling? I've tried it.

I've bought the most beautiful journals you ever saw - leather ones and satin ones and embroidered ones. I even have some I got in Italy with buttery soft leather covers and little straps that wrap around them and handmade paper.

Those journals end up saying stuff like: "Dang, today I ate way too many potato chips." Or "Got this adorable jacket on sale at Nordstrom. Woohoo!"

Maybe it's because I'm just shallow like that, but journaling does NOTHING for my "real" writing.

So my tip is this:

Listen to advice from other writers. Learn what processes/exercises/habits work for them - especially writers whose work you admire.

Try those processes/exercises/habits.

Then decide what works best for YOU.

If that means writing every day, then by all means, do it.

If that means journaling, do it.

If that means writing only when you have something you want and need to write about, do it.

If that means watching Judge Judy reruns, do it.

And my final thought?

If you don't write every day, I say:


P.S. to teachers: Keep in mind that some of the tips I offer here won't necessarily apply to youngsters. Most of my tips are intended primarily for my fellow grown-up writers who write for children. I understand that 4th graders may very well benefit from journaling, for instance. And fifth graders may need to write every day. And sixth graders probably need to practice writing by just writing "stuff".

But like many things in life, the "rules" that apply to children don't always apply to adults, and vice versa.

Sometimes kids need to just "do as I say and not as I do" until they are "fully cooked" enough to do it their own way, right?

There - that's my disclaimer.


Monday, February 11, 2013

Owen Jester Comics

Check out these awesome comics made by Ms. Blackburn's 6th grade students at West View School in Limestone, Tennessee.

They are for my book The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester

Thank you Jessica, John David, Shaina, and Alex!



Thursday, February 7, 2013

Things I Love Thursday

I love collecting things.

Bird nests.

Antique silver baby cups.

Vintage state map tablecloths.

Smoky Mountain memorabilia.

Especially Smoky Mountain plates.

Garden ornaments.

I also have a collection of children's silver food pushers.  (Technically, they are my husbands, but I get to add to the collection through gift giving, so it's just as much fun for me.)

This one is engraved "Jimmy."

I love the looped handle on this one, engraved with the letter "B."

This one I bought this Christmas. Bow Wow Wow.

I like this one with the mother-of-pearl handle and a matching spoon.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Dear Barbara O'Connor

Dear Barbara O'Connor:

You’re very good at first impressions. 

I like your ideas and I think you are very neat and organized. 
From writer Elizabeth George in her book Write Away:

I don't begin until I have an idea. But this idea is more than just a glimmer, more than a potentially evanescent wisp of inspiration. For me, what the idea is is a complete thought that contains one of three elements:
  1. The primary event that will get the ball rolling in the novel
  2. The arc of the story containing the beginning, the middle, and the ending OR (and please note that word OR)
  3. An intriguing situation that immediately suggest a cast of characters in conflict.

If I have one of those three elements, I have enough to begin.

[Note from me: Item #1 up there is, in scriptwriting parlance, the catalyst of the story. In children's books, that catalyst should be as close to the beginning as possible and, ideally, clearly identifiable. The reader jabs a finger onto the page and says, "Here. This is where the story starts."

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Writing Tip Tuesday

I have a confession to make.

You know those character development exercises where you answer all those trivia questions about your characters?

Like, what's in her backpack or what's his favorite pizza?


Hate 'em.

I never ever ever do them.

Here's another confession: I was in an SCBWI workshop years ago and the workshop leader asked us to do one of those exercises.

Like a middle school brat, I sat there and wrote "I hate this. I hate this. I hate this."

And then I pretended like I had to go to the restroom and left and never went back.

Here's why I hate those exercises: I get to know my characters by living with them in my head, and, later, on paper, while writing their story.

All those trivial questions seem just, well....trivial.


Those questions are out of context of the story.

Knowing my characters is a feeling - not an exercise.

I get to know my characters best by writing their story.

So, my tip for today is: Don't fret if you don't know what's in your character's backpack.

Fret if you don't know how she is going to act/react/speak/move/look in your story.

My other tip is: Every writer is different. I know that those character development exercises are great for some writers, so please don't send hate mail.

BUT those exercises aren't for every writer.

At least, not for this one.

So if they aren't great for you, it's okay to write "I hate this. I hate this. I hate this." And then pretend like you have to go to the bathroom.

And then go write your story.