Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Tattoos for book lovers

We all need this!

(Thanks to Sarah Dessen for the link.)

Thinking the story

Writer Alice McDermott wrote (in Fiction Writer Magazine):

"I'm not the sort of writer who can think up great story lines outside of writing. The writing itself is the thing that generates stories for me."

Up until now, I would have said, HUH?

Up until now, I've always been able to THINK my stories.

Up until now, I've experienced that rush of dashing to grab a pen and paper to jot down the words in my head.....that I-can-barely-write-fast-enough feeling.

Up until now.

With my current work-in-progress, I can NOT think about the story. I try and try and try and there is just a big blank wall of nothing - until I sit down and start writing.

Luckily, when I start writing, the story begins to leak out of the pen and onto the paper.

But, man, I hate working this way.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Writing Tip Tuesday

According to scriptwriting "formulas", one of the critical elements in the setup of a story is the central question.

  • The central question is simply what the story is about or what the problem is.
  • The story should ask a question in the setup that will be answered in the climax.
  • The central question should be revealed as early as possible. (This is particularly true for young readers. They don't want to have to keep reading and reading to find out what the heck the story is about. In fact, if you take too long to reveal the central question, they will stop reading and go watch Sponge Bob.)
  • The central question must be clear. (Again, if it is not clear, young readers will go watch Sponge Bob instead.)
  • Once the central question is raised, everything that happens in the story after that should revolve around or relate to that question.
  • The climax of the story answers the central question (e.g. solves the problem).

Monday, October 29, 2007

FSG November/December Newsletter

Check out the November/December issue of FSG Notes from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Encylcopedia envy

In One Writer's Beginnings by Eudora Welty, she writes about reading the encyclopedia - which brought on a nostalgic flashback.

The only encyclopedias I had as a child were the Golden Book Encyclopedias - those glossy, colorful, brief encyclopedias that my mother got at the grocery store.

Every few weeks, a new volume would be available for a bargain price if her total bill was over a certain amount.

It seemed to take forever to get the whole set, but I remember how exciting it was when a new volume came home.

"Oh, yay - the P, Q and R volume is here!"

But then my best friend's parents bought The World Book Encyclopedia - the mother of all encyclopedias, in my eyes.

I mean, it had those totally awesome tissue paper pictures of the human body, where you could peel back the layers and see the organs and stuff.



(Note: This was the same best friend who used to gallop around my yard on a broomstick with me, playing "horse" for hours on end. And then she up and got a REAL horse. E-N-V-Y to the nth degree.)

Robert's Snow

The schedule for Week #3 is in the sidebar to the right.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

I'm such a geek

I'm so excited about Mac's new OS system (Leopard). Of course, now I need MAJOR MANUALS.

And check out the new Finder window! So cool....

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Blogging for a Cure

I put up the Blogging for a Cure schedule for Week 3 on my sidebar to the right - but forgot there are two more days to this week's schedule. Sorry!

Here is this weekend's schedule of bloggers:

Saturday, October 27

Julie Fromme Fortenberry at Your Neighborhood Librarian
Sarah Dillard at The Silver Lining
John Hassett at cynthialord's Journal
Abigail Marble at Please Come Flying

Sunday, October 28

Ashley Wolff at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy
Barbara Garrison at Brooklyn Arden
Kelly Murphy at ChatRabbit

Friday, October 26, 2007

A Story Without Words

A Day in the Life of a Children's Book Author as She Writes the Last Chapter of Her Latest Book

Barbara O'Connor

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Might could

I grew up in the South.

There are certain expressions and phrases that I've used all my life and never thought twice about until I left the South and someone would tease me or comment about it. (I drive copyeditors crazy - they just don't "get" some of that Southern speak.)

One of those expressions is "might could" - as in: I might could go to the movies with you tonight. I'll have to ask my mama.

Last night I was reading One Writer's Beginnings by Eudora Welty, and got a kick out of the following passage:

The school toilets were in the boys' and girls' respective basements....A friend and I were making our plans for Saturday from adjoining cubicles. "Can you come spend the day with me?" I called out, and she called back, "I might could."

"Who said MIGHT COULD?" It sounded like "Fe Fi Fo Fum!"

We both were petrified, for we knew whose deep measured words those were that came from just outside our doors. That was the voice of Mrs. McWillie, who taught the other fourth grade across the hall from ours.

...."If I ever catch you down here one more time saying MIGHT'll be kept in every day for a week! I hope you both are sufficiently ashamed of yourselves."

Saying MIGHT COULD was bad, but saying it in the basement made bad grammar a sin. I knew that Presbyterians believed that you could go to Hell.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Thoughts on self-censoring

I was at a school once where one of the teachers didn't want to read ME AND RUPERT GOODY to her class because of the "child abuse." I confess that I was taken by surprise when I was told that and had to think hard to even realize what she was talking about.

This is what she was talking about:

"Mama slaps them silly when they say that, leaving her red handprint on their cheeks. They start howling and holding their faces and she says, "Y'all hush up that bawlin' before I give you something to bawl about."

I thought a lot about that incident - wondering why it would have been a bad thing for children to hear that.

Not long after that, I was at a school discussing "show, don't tell" with some third graders. We were brainstorming ways that people show anger. A small and very spunky boy announced very matter-of-factly that one time his mother got mad at him for sloshing bath water onto the floor and she slapped him. (However, he prefaced that with "before my mom was in therapy....")

He literally used the word "slapped", not "hit".

His mother slapped him.

Naturally, it made me think once again about the issue of children reading about children being slapped by a parent.

Do we not want children to know that some children get slapped? If so, why not?

For the children who are slapped, do we not want them to read about it? If so, why not?

Okay, fast forward to yesterday. I wrote the following in my work-in-progress:

"Velma stomped over to Popeye and gave him a little whack on the arm when she asked him what in the world had gotten into him. Then another whack when she asked him if he had plumb lost his mind. And one last whack when she asked him if he was trying to worry her right into the grave."

Then, a few passages later:

"Popeye could tell that all she wanted to do in the whole world, at that moment, was find herself a rolled up newspaper and swat Starletta's skinny legs. But, of course, she couldn't. So she turned to Popeye and said, "Let's go."

I woke up during the night thinking about that.

My thought was this: Maybe I should change that.

Maybe Velma should just nudge him a little and not whack him.
Maybe I should take out the rolled-up newspaper stuff.

Sigh.... I hate it when my THINKING self gets in the way of my creative self. (Wild mind vs. monkey mind.)

For cryin' out loud, Velma would have whacked his arm and swatted her legs. That's the way Velma is.

As I said before, sometimes, like in the country western song, "I wish somehow, I didn't know now, what I didn't know then" - if you know what I mean.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Blogging for a Cure Presents: Brian Lies

I am delighted to feature one of the artists who has so generously contributed to the Robert's Snow project to raise money for Dana Farber cancer research:

Brian Lies

Brian is an enormously talented artist, New York Times bestselling author, world's best blueberry scone maker, and a dear friend of mine. It is my honor to feature him today in conjunction with the Blogging for a Cure project to draw attention to the Robert's Snow online auction. (There are many more artists participating in this event, so please check them out.)

Brian has illustrated many books for children, including Finklehopper Frog by Irene Livingston (Tricycle Press)and the Flatfoot Fox series by Eth Clifford (Houghton Mifflin).

He has both written and illustrated the popular Hamlet books (Moon Mountain), and his most recent, the New York Times bestselling Bats at the Beach (Houghton Mifflin).

And now, let's hear from Brian:

How did you get involved with the Robert's Snow project?

I honestly don't remember. I'm a member of several illustrator listservs, and my guess is that somebody on one of the lists mentioned the Robert's Snow project. It sounded like a great thing to be a part of, and this is my third year of making a snowflake.

How did ten-year-old Brian answer the question: What do you want to be when you grow up?

Like many kids, my dream job shifted shape a lot. When I was growing up, lots of boys wanted to be astronauts (there weren't any American female astronauts at the time). I also wanted to be a fireman, an actor, a chemist (my Dad was a researcher), a paleontologist, and a herpetologist. It wasn't until I was in fifth grade that I even really thought about being an author. An author/illustrator, Harry Devlin, visited our school, and I was amazed that you could actually make a JOB out of writing and drawing--both things I loved to do.

What are some of your earliest memories of creating art?

I think my earliest memory is from preschool, making papier mache-covered balloon animals. I got in trouble because I was more interested in mooshing my hands around in the flour paste than actually finishing my project.

Another time, in first grade, we did line drawings on burlap and then embroidered the lines with blunt needles. My drawing was of a lion and a tree and I was proud of it, until the art teacher picked out some of my stitching and "fixed" it. There was a rule against drawing "lollipop trees," which was sad because that's how little kids see a tree--a stick and a blob on top of it. She hung my lion in the hallway and told me how nice it was, but I couldn't even look at it--it wasn't mine any more.

Tell us a bit about your college experience?

In college, I was studying for a "real" career--in psychology, or something equally worthy. I drew to let off steam, and took an art class for fun, but was irritated by "artier than thou" attitudes of the teacher and some of the students. In protest, I used socks and dried American cheese slices to create an assemblage for one project, and was horrified that during the in-class critique, only one student suggested that I was poking fun at the assignment. I found out that Brown students could cross-register at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design), and took a class or two there. But then I started doing drawings for the college newspaper and realized that those illustrations were the best part of my week. A new idea hit me--I could become a political cartoonist! It combined my growing interest in politics, my love of drawing, and my hope to change the world.

During my senior year, I applied to 140 major metropolitan daily newspapers, creating 140 individual portfolios of my editorial cartoons. While my friends were getting acceptance letters from great companies, I collected rejection letters--141 in all (one Ohio paper sent me the duplicate form rejection letters on two consecutive days, as if to hammer the point home). My ideas were good, they said, but my drawing wasn't. I graduated from college with no job, and few prospects.

Your road to children's book publication in six (or ten or a hundred) easy steps?

Then I heard about an art school in Boston--the School of the Museum of Fine Arts--and it sounded like the perfect thing for me. I drew and painted for nearly three years, and during that time, called Jeff Danziger, the Christian Science Monitor's political cartoonist, to ask for advice. Jeff liked my drawings, and took me into the next room to meet Cynthia Hanson, designer of the Op Ed page, who took me on right then as a freelancer, to do editorial illustrations.

A year or so later, lightning struck. I was standing in a store in my neighborhood of Cambridge, MA, when the woman in line ahead of me turned around. She'd overheard me talking with a friend and asked, "Did I hear you say you're an illustrator?" I said yes, and she asked, "Have you ever done any children's illustration?" Again I said yes--I was working on a picture book at the time, and was hoping to send it to Houghton Mifflin, one of the biggest publishers in Boston.

It turned out that she was the art director at Houghton Mifflin, Susan Sherman--the very person to whom I was planning to send my story! We arranged a meeting for a portfolio review, and a month after that, she sent me my first book to illustrate--a black and white chapter book. I've worked with Sue now on a number of books, both at Houghton Mifflin and Charlesbridge Publishing, where she now works.

Any particular inspirations, heroes or mentors?

My first inspiration was Harry Devlin, when he visited my fifth grade library. Several of his books had been favorites when I was younger (THE WONDERFUL TREE HOUSE and THE KNOBBY BOYS TO THE RESCUE), and seeing the man who had actually made those books (with his writer wife, Wende Devlin) was astounding.

But I'm also inspired by the illustration-world mirepoix of NC Wyeth and Maxfield Parrish, for their color work, and Winsor McCay for his no-holds-barred imagination in "Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend."

Will you share with us the story behind your most recent published book?

BATS AT THE BEACH came about because my daughter, who was a 2nd grader at the time, saw a frost pattern in a guest-room window which she announced looked "like a bat, with sea foam." That sounded like a book to me--what would bats do at the beach? I liked the idea of inverting the typical day at the beach and seeing what it would look like at night.

Anything in the works at the moment?

I'm working on another bat book, BAT NIGHT AT THE LIBRARY, which is due to be published in fall, 2008. I'm having a lot of fun with it!

Any particular goals you have yet to accomplish?

There are lots of things I'd like to try, from wordless picture books to novel-length pieces, and anything in between. I like the idea of writing books for a variety of ages, so when kids decide they've outgrown my picture books, for instance, they could switch over to my chapter books. When I was a kid, I hated to realize that I'd finished all of my favorite authors' books there on the shelf. But if I could have learned that there was a whole NEW shelf, in another section of the library, with MORE books by those authors...that would have been great!

Anything you've learned along the way that you can share with newbies?

I think the most important thing is NOT to focus just on getting published, even though that's an aspiring author/illustrator's immediate goal. What's really important is craft--making your writing or drawing as strong as it can be. What's your weakest skill? Description? Dialogue? Drawing hands? Work on those. I think weaknesses are fairly easy to see in writing or drawings, and you're often judged not by what you do brilliantly, but by those weaknesses.

I think getting published is a lot like golf (which I don't play)--if you perfect your swing, the ball should go more or less where you want it to. Likewise, if you learn to tell stories in an original and compelling way, either in words or pictures, and hone your skills so that they're truly professional. . . you're going to get published. It may take a while, but you'll get published.

The other most important thing if you want to write or draw is to DO it, as regularly as you can. My ability to draw waxes and wanes. When I'm in the writing stage of a book and don't draw for several weeks, my drawing becomes terrible. It's only after drawing daily for a week or so that my skills return, and the mental muscles get back into shape. But it's important to build those mental muscles first--and the only way to do it is by spending time practicing.

And now.....drum roll, please:

Brian's Snowflake: Free Fall


Monday, October 22, 2007

My new website!!

My web site has been redesigned - by the fabulous and wonderful folks at Winding Oak.

(Vicki and Steve - you are DA BOMB!)


Bruce Black over at Wordswimmer has posted an interesting piece about chapter endings - using the metaphor of waves to cite the need for the chapters to push and pull the reader through the story.

And he uses a chapter ending of mine as an example! (From How to Steal a Dog.)

If you don't check out Bruce's blog on a regular basis, you should. He offers all kinds of nuggets for writers and has interviews with children's authors galore.

Blogging for a Cure - Week 2

Week two of Blogging for a Cure - drawing attention to the fundraiser for Dana Farber Cancer Institute.

This week's blogs are posted in my sidebar to the right.

(Note: I'll be featuring Brian Lies on Tuesday - so come back and check it out.)

Note to Blog Readers about Blogging for a Cure: When Jules of 7-Imp put out her call in September for bloggers to interview/feature artists who had created snowflakes for Robert’s Snow 2007 at their blogs, a number of artists had not yet sent in their snowflakes to Dana-Farber. As time was of the essence to get Blogging for a Cure underway, we worked with the list of artists whose snowflakes were already in possession of Dana-Farber. Therefore, not all the participating artists will be featured. This in no way diminishes our appreciation for their contributions to this worthy cause. We hope everyone will understand that once the list of artists was emailed to bloggers and it was determined which bloggers would feature which artists at their blogs, a schedule was organized and sent out so we could get to work on Blogging for a Cure ASAP. Our aim is to raise people’s awareness about Robert’s Snow and to promote the three auctions. We hope our efforts will help to make Robert’s Snow 2007 a resounding success.

Friday, October 19, 2007

A cat and mouse game

A perfect, slipper-wearing, rainy writing day.

There's a sleeping dog by my desk:

There's a sleeping dog outside my door:

I'm trying to be productive. See? 24 chapters...


.....there is also a sleeping cat on my desk.
Dangerously close to my mouse...

And every time I try to use the mouse, that tail starts a-twitching....
....those claws come out...

Well, let's just say I'm having trouble being as productive as I'd like to be.

You're in luck!

I received the following letter from a 4th grader named Courtney:

I loved your book. I wish it had no ending.

Dear Courtney:

You're in luck!

I have been working on a new book for months and months - and guess what?

It has no ending!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

These kids get it

I was at a school in Tampa last week where the kids had made a banner showing writing elements from Fame and Glory in Freedom, Georgia.

Personification: I saw doubt dance all over his face.
Strong verbs: ambled, marched perched, hunched, chuckled, flicked, whooshing, admire

Repetition: Then I lay there and thought some more. I thought and thought and thought.

Hyphens: "But Miss-Nag-Me-to-Death-and-Spend-All-My-Money-in-One-Day would have been more like it."

Onomatopoeia: Clang, clang, clang went the bags as he headed our way.

Metaphor: A little tornado of excitement was whirling around in my stomach.

Metaphor: He looked like a big gust of wind had come along and blown away that big black cloud that had been hovering there over his head.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Quote of the day

Planning to write is not writing. Outlining...researching...talking to people about what you're doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.

--E.L. Doctorow

P.S. to E.L. - I don't know. I still say thinking about writing is sorta kinda writing. But I get your point.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Can you stand it?

Is there anybody on the planet who could not love this face?

Phoebe: the sweetest dog in the universe

Sibling rivalry

Okay...gotta give the other pooch a shout-out, too.

Matty: the grumpiest dog in the universe

Writing Tip Tuesday

One of the most critical elements of the setup of a story is the catalyst (sometimes called the inciting incident).

The catalyst begins the action of the story.

It is the moment the story begins. The reader now knows what the story is about.

  • The catalyst should come as early in the story as possible.
  • The strongest catalyst is an event or action, but it can also be situational (a series of situations that add up to reveal the story).

I'm a firm believer in jumping right into the story. The longer you take to let the reader know what the story is about, the more you risk losing her.

(Often, however, the reader needs to be grounded in setting and character before the story action begins. In those cases, the catalyst won't necessarily be in the first page or two - but a tad later. The operative word here is tad. You'll want to get the action going ASAP.)

During revision, take a look at your manuscript and see if you can literally point your finger to the very spot where the action of the story starts.

Then ask yourself if that spot is as close to the beginning as possible.

Next, take a look at everything that comes before that spot and ask yourself if it can either come later - or be deleted altogether.

Remember my experience with David Small pinpointing the catalyst of my story - which was two chapters later than it should have been? A lesson I've never forgotten.

Next Writing Tip Tuesday: central question

Monday, October 15, 2007

Friday, October 12, 2007

Last Florida Post

This is the last Florida post. I promise...

(l to r) Harlem, Bird and Miss Delphine


Kids presenting me with a terrific book of drawings.

Me (left) and librarian Starr Anderson, who makes the world's best Spanish bean soup.

At the FAME conference in Orlando, I got Jane O'Connor's (Fancy Nancy) gift basket and she got mine. So I got a cool wand that made magical noises when you waved it - and a feather fan. There's also a chocolate alligator there.

Now I'm home. Whew! A great trip but my pillow sure looked good last night.

Florida IRA Dinner

Signing books with Alexandria LaFaye at the Florida IRA dinner. I signed a gazillion books. Okay, okay...half a gazillion.

Me (left) and Alexandria LaFaye

Speaking at the IRA dinnner. For some reason, when my contact told me 300 people, it didn't look like this in my head. It looked smaller.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Florida Again

This was the coolest thing ever ! At this school, they are creating a Reading Garden: a garden with plants and trees and benches where the children can go to read.

Each author who visits the school gets something planted in their honor.

This is me with the most amazing librarian on the planet, Dee Dee Schatzberg, planting the three bushes that are MY bushes in their garden. (A Barbara Bush?)

Other authors represented in the garden include Jim Aylsworth, Tom Birdseye, Herb Packer, and Laurie Byars.

Me with a banner made by students.

Me (left) and teacher, Ms. Torres (right). All the kids think she looks just like Miss Delphine in Fame and Glory in Freedom, Georgia - and she does!! Exactly!

She has great red hair and dangley earrings and even sparkly high-heeled shoes that go clickity clack.

And she is uber nice, like Miss Delphine.

The kids adore her.

The amazing Dee Dee getting roses for her birthday. Everybody in the entire city of Tampa adores Dee Dee.

(Thank you, Dee Dee, for being my chauffeur and BFF.)

Kids showing me their spelling bee!

More from the Sunshine State

I'm sitting in the lobby of the Comfort Inn in Tampa, Florida, getting ready to begin my last day of school presentations. Wow - these Florida folks know how to do it right!

I have a zillion pics but not time to post them yet.

Have to give a major shout-out to Librarian Extraordinnaire Dee Dee Schatzberg, who chauffeured me around endlessly and presented me with the most excited kids on the face of the planet. AND - she planned a lovely ceremony at her school's "Reading Garden", when they planted three bushes in my honor! How cool is that?

Hey - they can be Barbara Bush!

Off to FAME conference this evening (Florida Association for Media in Education.)

Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller

Okay, okay.... I confess: I probably wouldn't have read this book if I hadn't "met" Sarah Miller online.

There, I said it.

Why? I just don't read a lot of historical fiction. I'm a contemporary realistic fiction kinda gal. And there are so many books, so little time, and all that.

But I am so glad I did read it.

The girl can write.

First and foremost, her passion for the subject (Annie Sullivan) comes through loud and clear. I love that she took a subject she was so passionate about, researched the heck out of it, and then transported herself not just into the story, but into the person of Annie Sullivan.

And the writing?

Oh, well, the writing.....where's my highlighter?

A worry has twisted its way into my stomach.

I throw an anxious stare out the window.

My mind is tangled with uncertainties.

The loneliness in my heart is an old acquaintance. [my favorite]

"Anne Sullivan?" He says no more, but I know from his tone that we shall never be friends.

The words stumble out of my mouth before I have a chance to catch them.

I mean, you know how that woman feels.

And that's just by about page 16.

Okay, okay....I can't resist just one more (p. 75). This is describing Helen grabbing eggs off of Annie's plate. Now, Miller could have written: Helen grabbed the eggs off of my plate.

But, nooooo.

She wrote:

Like a spider drawing up its legs, she pulls her fingers into a fist, dragging a pile of food to her grasp. The yellow bits slither out between her knuckles.

Where's my highlighter?

Monday, October 8, 2007

The Sunshine State

Greetings from Florida. My first day of school visits started at the most beautiful elementary school ever. It was 80 years old and had so much character. Check out the tiles on these stairs, made by children (the tiles, that is...not the stairs.)

Me, yammering away about Fame and Glory in Freedom, Georgia (my book that is on the Sunshine Young Readers Award list):

Joan McClelland (left), librarian at Mabry Elementary in Tampa and Abby Russell (right), author event coordinator for Barnes and Noble, standing in front of the terrific welcome signs made by the students:

Some words of encouragement from a student:

Abby Russell (left) and me:

Welcoming words from a student:

One of the many drawings of Fame and Glory in Freedom, Georgia:

One class gave me a terrific book of poems they had made.

AND - another class made a banner about various writing elements they found in FAME AND GLORY IN FREEDOM, GEORGIA. I have some great photos of it and will post it at a later date.