Monday, March 31, 2008

Doing it right

I hereby present Hampden Meadows Elementary School with the School-That-Knows-How-to-Do-It-Right Award.

Librarian Jane Austin could have written this post.

She did everything right.

The result?

One of the best school visits ever.

The kids were smart, funny, engaged, polite, friendly, interesting, interested, creative and PREPARED.

The teachers were 100% on board with the program.

Jane later wrote to me: "The children loved meeting you and hearing about your books. They learned so much from you about improving their writing. At 3:00 yesterday I was inundated with requests for all of your books."

Improved writing and excitement about reading?

Mission accomplished.

High five, Hampden Meadows!

Ms. Ginalski's class

Ms. Bailey's class

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Eschew this

Remember my Eschew Obfuscation refrigerator?

Check out Jennifer Thermes's blog today.

(Is it Thermes'? Thermes's? Oh - heck, how about "the blog of Thermes." You get the point)

Great advice

From author John Dalton:

Pay close attention to the best, truest, most articulate and elegant writing in your manuscript. These five-star passages will show you how to remedy the other passages that are problematic or merely mediocre.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Bunny envy

The Easter Bunny (aka my husband) brought the dogs a bunny.
One bunny.
Two dogs.

Phoebe triumphed:

Step away from the bunny:

Matty was not a happy camper:

So the Easter Bunny went out and bought another bunny.
Phoebe triumphed again:

And again:

And again:

And again:

There was no happy ending to this sad bunny story.
Two bunnies.
Two dogs.
But always one bunny looks so much better than the other.

So the bunny now lives in a drawer.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Writing Tip Tuesday

Good dialogue.

You need it.

Mastering good dialogue involves having a good ear and a good voice. But there are a few simple tips that will contribute to writing good dialogue.

  • Good dialogue shows.
  • Good dialogue includes beats.
  • Good dialogue uses speaker tags effectively.
  • Good dialogue helps move the story forward.
Good dialogue shows.
It shows emotions. Let the words that are spoken show the character's feelings.


She was puzzled.
"Huh?" she said. "I don't get it."

Good dialogue shows personality traits.

She was such a bossy girl.
"I'm the only one who makes up the rules to this game and only me. You got it?"

Dialogue can (and should) be used to show a whole host of story elements - setting, weather, motivation, backstory, relationships to other characters, etc.

When you're tempted to write narrative - to tell the reader some backstory, to tell the reader where the characters are, to tell the reader how the character feels about another character,


Try dialogue instead.

Next week: more dialogue

Monday, March 24, 2008

No comment

Just in from Publishers Weekly:

Danielle Steel to Do Children's Book for HC
By Rachel Deahl -- Publishers Weekly, 3/24/2008 1:42:00 PM

HarperCollins has acquired world rights to Danielle Steel's The Happiest Hippo in the World. The world-famous romance novelist, who has penned 88 adult titles, is not a complete stranger to the genre, having published the Max and Martha kids' books with Delacorte in 1989. The new title with Harper, about a baby hippo that's green instead of the standard gray, is slated to hit shelves in fall 2009. The book will be illustrated by Margaret Spengler. Kate Jackson, senior v-p, associate publisher and editor-in-chief of HarperCollins Children's Books, brokered the deal with Kate Schafter of Janklow & Nesbit.

My Easter

Who needs 'em.
I'm talkin' raw bar!

And a giant chocolate boat was pretty cool, too.

Friday, March 21, 2008


This is spring?

Egg memories

I love decorating the Easter Egg tree because each of the ornaments evokes memories - the same way that Christmas tree ornaments do.

My favorites, of course, are the ones made by my son when he was little.

Quote of the Day

Writer Martin Amis says:

Get to the end, and then worry. But get to the end.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Jessie's Mountain

Kerry Madden and I have a lot in common.

We write children's books.

We love the Smoky Mountains.

We have been to the Cross Garden in Prattville, Alabama.

I loved the first two books in her Smoky Mountain (Maggie Valley) trilogy: Gentle's Holler and Louisiana's Song.

I just finished the third and (sniff sniff) last book of the trilogy: Jessie's Mountain.

Honestly, it was like visiting an old friend. I have grown to love and adore the Weems family of Maggie Valley. Kerry is a master of characterization - each and every member of that family is unique - from annoying little Jitters to grumpy old Grandma Horace to my favorite: the ever resourceful Livy Two.

I love Livy's feisty spirit and her observations about the people she encounters on her trip to Nashville to pursue her dream and save her family: the woe-is-me lady, Mr. Fancy Mustache Clerk, the devil-dog man.

Kerry's love of the mountains and her respect and admiration of the good-hearted mountain people is evident. She draws on her personal experience in her beloved mountains and takes us right along with her in her stories.

AND, you gotta love an author who writes this in her Acknowledgments:

When I first began to write Gentle's Holler, the first of the three Smoky Mountain books, I wrote it snappy, sappy, and sent it out lightning speed, hoping for a book deal yesterday.

Don't you just love that?

Now we gotta all start nagging Kerry to write more stories about the Weems.

You can find out more about Kerry here.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

To the dump, to the dump, to the dump, dump, dump

In the town where I live, there is no garbage collection.

You have to take your trash to the dump yourself. (It's offically called the transfer station, but everyone calls it what it is: the dump.)

But as dumps go, it's a pretty cool dump.

There's one section referred to as the Duxbury Mall, where people leave "good" stuff that you can take: rusty bicycles, moldy wicker rocking chairs, 30-year-old blenders, dusty fake Christmas trees. You name it, you can find it. (My son once got a bizarre wagon/scooter combo that the kids in the neighborhood referred to as "the Demented-mobile.")

In addition to the Duxbury Mall, there's a trailer called the Duxbury Book Exchange!

You take books and leave books. It's awesome!

Now, granted, they aren't always the greatest books...

This is the children's section.

Now, granted, they aren't always the most current books. This one is from 1954.

Every time I go there, I worry that I'm going to find one of my books.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Soup greetings

Writing Tip Tuesday

Let's talk about talking.

Dialogue, that is.

Knowing how to write dialogue is one of the best tools you can have in your writer's toolbox and, in my opinion, one of the easiest to master because it's very specific and concrete - unlike those big ole scary things like structure and pace and plot.

No doubt about it, good dialogue is critical to children's books.

  • Sections with no dialogue = narrative. Too much narrative bores young readers and slows the pace. Dialogue adds white space and breaks up the narrative.
  • Dialogue helps show the story. Narrative tends to tell the story.
  • Dialogue brings the characters to life.
  • Dialogue quickens the pace.
  • Dialogue moves the story along.
  • Dialogue contributes to voice and style of both the writer and the speaker (i.e., the character).
I think that part of writing good dialogue can't be taught. It's a talent, an art, an EAR - much like writing voice. Sometimes a writer has it and sometimes she doesn't. Sometimes she has it but hasn't honed it, discovered it, experienced her dialogue voice yet.

That skill can be sharpened by listening - really listening - to real people talking - and by reading good dialogue.

Remember that post from last week? The quote from Alison Smith about focused reading? I think that's a great way to study good dialogue - to read a book you love and focus only on the dialogue.

Another part of writing good dialogue that can't really be taught is mastered by knowing your character. Nobody can teach you to know your character. You have to know your character. If you do, you'll know how he talks.

But there are also part of creating good dialogue that can be learned - some simple, concrete, easy-to-master techniques.

So - next week - some tips on dialogue.

Monday, March 17, 2008

A nice review

A very nice review of Greetings from Nowhere in the Christian Science Monitor.

State Awards

Okay, I'm tooting my own horn again. Sorry...

But I'm pretty psyched that How to Steal a Dog is starting to pick up some children's book award nominations:


Rhode Island


South Carolina

Never mind

Last week I posted a link to Powell's program where you can "sell" them used books for credit towards the purchase of new books (and they pay shipping).

That sounded like a pretty good deal.

But author Susan Taylor Brown left a comment that, out of curiosity, she had put in her book and that they would "not accept" it.

So, out of curiosity, I put in all of my novels. Out of seven (including Greetings from Nowhere, which is brand spanking new), they would only accept two: How to Steal a Dog and Fame and Glory in Freedom, Georgia.

And they gave me a whopping $3.50 credit for the two of them.


So - with regards to that cool Powell's program:

Never mind.....

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Toot toot

How to Steal a Dog has been named to the International Reading Association's 2008 list of Notable Books for a Global Society.

Each year, IRA elects a list of 25 outstanding trade books for enhancing student understanding of people and cultures throughout the world.

Winning titles include fiction, nonfiction, and poetry written for students in grades K-12.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

That's what I'm talkin' about...

Earlier in the week I offered some advice to schools that host authors. Yesterday I visited a school that didn't need that advice. They did every thing right.

This greeted me at the front door:

This greeted me (and all the students) in the front hallway:

The kids walked by this every day. By the time I got there, they were excited to see me.

They worked hard.

I worked hard.
The day was a rousing success!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Writing Tip Tuesday

I always end my school presentations by offering several pieces of advice.

One of them is this: If you want to be a better writer, you need to do three things:
  1. Read
  2. Read
  3. Read
I'm always shocked and a bit annoyed when I meet children's writers who don't read children's books.

But they are in the minority.

For the majority who do read, I recently came across a piece of advice from author Alison Smith (as quoted in Off the Page by Carole Burns):

I would reread my favorite writers and I'd say, this time when you read this book, look at how Charlotte Bronte structured a chapter. And this time when you read this book, let's look at dialogue and which parts are spoken and which parts are told indirectly. And it was really exciting. It was like going behind the scenes of your favorite book and seeing them again.

I think this is a great way to read as a writer and to learn by reading - a focused approach.

This is exactly the way I recommend approaching revision - by focusing on one element at a time - to read through the work thinking of only one thing at a time rather than the scatter-shot, try-to-catch-everything-at-once approach.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Advice from the trenches, again

Dear School-That-is-Planning-an-Author-Visit:

So, you've decided to invite an author to your school. Good for you!

Now, I know you want to get the biggest bang for your buck, right? I mean, money is tight. The PTO had a great fundraiser and you want to use it to best advantage.

I've done a lot of school visits.

Some were great. Some were not so great.

At School A, the kids could hardly wait to meet me. They had been preparing for my visit for weeks. They had read some of my books and couldn't get to the library fast enough to read the others. There was an air of excitement throughout the whole school. The kids had decorated the school with signs and banners to welcome me. They came to the presentation armed with questions and treated me respectfully. The teachers knew my work and had been discussing and reading my books in the classroom for days and sometimes weeks prior to my visit. The school had sent home flyers about book sales and the kids were thrilled to have their books signed. Those kids will always remember my visit and I will be eager to return there.

At School B, no one at the school seemed to know who I was or why I was there. There was no one to meet me or help me with my equipment. The kids had no idea who I was and had never seen one of my books. They had me present in the cafeteria, with the children sitting on the sticky linoleum floor and pots and pans clanging in the background. The teachers sat in the back of the room and chatted with one another while I disciplined the children. Those kids had a very ho-hum day. I will not be in a hurry to return.

Trust me, School A got the biggest bang for their buck.

So what did the Great-School-Visits School do that the So-So-School-Visits School didn't?

1. They had a good team of volunteers ready and willing to research and, if possible, preview visiting authors in their area.

2. That team of volunteers communicated with school faculty to learn what was most important about the author visit: appeal to the children; curriculum tie-ins; writing workshops; a body of work; an author who can present to the whole school or to just one or two grades, etc.

In addition, are you looking for an author to simply entertain and be interesting (and there's nothing wrong with that!) - or do you also want an author who can give the students something they can take back to their classrooms (i.e., writing tips; curriculum tie-ins, etc.).

3. Delegate. Delegate. Delegate. Bring enough volunteers on board (if possible) so that one person can handle book sales, one person can liaison with teachers and handle scheduling, one person can take care of technical equipment, one person can be in charge of greeting and escorting the author, one person can bring in a small sack lunch and a bottle of water, etc.

4. They planned ahead. Some authors book a year or more in advance. It also takes time to carry out all the other stages of the author visit, like book-ordering (discussed below).

5. They prepared the students.

Let me repeat that:

5. They prepared the students. This is the single most important ingredient for a successful author visit. Hands down.

What is involved in preparing the students, you ask?

Make sure they are familiar with the author's work.

Let me repeat that.

Make sure they are familiar with the author's work.

They should have the author's books in the classrooms.
They should read the books - or...
They should have the books read to them.
They should see the books displayed in the library.

Nothing generates excitement and enthusiasm for an author's visit more than this. Nothing.

And when the students are excited and enthusiastic, they get 400% more out of the author visit.

6. Give the author's schedule of presentations careful consideration.
  • Have you checked with the author about the timing of her presentation? Don't plan on an hour-long program if the author has a 50-minute program. It doesn't sound like much, but it makes a difference when there are 3 or 4 presentations in a day.
  • Have you allowed for small breaks between sessions?
  • Have you taken into consideration the amount of time it will take the students to arrive and get settled? (For instance, large groups coming into an auditorium require more time than smaller groups sitting on the floor in the library.)
  • Have you avoided large chunks of "down" time for the author? (Most authors would rather keep up their momentum with the programs and then be able to leave, rather than having an hour or more between sessions or an especially long lunch break.)

7. Give the students the opportunity to buy the author's books in advance of the visit. Assign a volunteer to be in charge of this. Most authors have information about ordering on their web site or can give it to you in advance. You should allow six weeks for this! Many publishers can get you books right away, but some need lead time.

8. Sometimes students aren't motivated to buy a book until after he has seen the author. If possible, order extra books to meet demands of late orders. Most publishers allow unsold books to be returned, so you won't be out the money if you order too many.

9. Choose the location of the presentation carefully. Libraries are ideal - they have that "book atmosphere" and usually have nice acoustics and lighting. Cafeterias are deadly - lousy sound, uncomfortable floors for students to sit on, pots and pans clanging, terrible lighting for projector presentations, disruptions and scheduling issues. (Trust me, I understand there aren't always a lot of options.)

10. Be very clear what the equipment needs of the author are. Make sure all the necessary equipment is ready - that means set up and ready to go when the author arrives.

11. Have someone on hand to help the author with technical equipment set-up. It's unfair to expect the author to know how to use unfamiliar projectors or to hustle around looking for extensions cords, outlets, etc.

12. Arrange for someone to greet the author. This is just common courtesy and will be appreciated. Show the author where the restrooms are, where the teachers' lounge is, etc.

13. Make sure the folks working in the front office know the author is coming and who is expected to escort her to her presentation spot.

14. Have the students prepare signs, banners, or other displays for the author. This adds an air of excitement to the school and makes the author feel welcome. This also helps involve the students in the author visit.

15. Assign someone to introduce the author to the students. While the author is certainly capable of doing this, having an "official introducer" sends a signal to the students that this is a special presentation and someone worth listening to - and oh, how lucky they are!

16. Make sure teachers stay with the students throughout the entire presentation. The author should not have to deal with discipline issues.

17. Ask that the teachers not work on computers or talk to one another during the program. This sends a bad signal to the students - a signal that says, "I don't really value this program." A teacher who sits attentively and listens respectfully to the program sends a good signal, a signal that says, "I value this program."

18. Don't change the pre-arranged schedule without letting the author know prior to the day of the visit. The author has planned accordingly and shouldn't have to make adjustments after arrival.

19. Let the author know ahead of time if lunch will be provided. Authors will appreciate choosing something from a take-out menu or a simple lunch prepared by a volunteer. At the very least, let the author know what is available to her in the cafeteria or from a nearby deli (if time allows). Most authors come prepared with something for lunch, but would just as soon not bring it if it's not necessary.

20. Show the author some appropriate places for her to eat, such as the teachers' lounge. Some authors will appreciate some quiet time during lunch. You might ask if she would prefer to eat alone in a quiet corner of the library or some other quiet spot.

21. If you've arranged for the author to have lunch with a group of students, be sure to factor in some time for the author to eat. While it's wonderful for kids to have a chance to chat with the author, such events add "talking time" to the author's day and makes it difficult, if not impossible, to actually eat.

22. For book signing times, have the students write their names on a post-it note so that the author won't have to ask about spelling. This makes things go more smoothly and quickly.

23. Don't allow students to rush up in hoards, thrusting small scraps of paper at the author for her to sign. It's hard for authors to say no to these requests, but signing one usually turns into signing 50. There's just no time for this. (And the author will feel terrible having to say "no.")

One remedy for students who did not buy books but would like an autograph is to prepare simple bookmarks for the author to sign and then copy and/or laminate them for all the students. (Some authors have their own bookmarks or bookmark templates. Ask ahead of time.)

24. Have the author's check ready on the day of the visit.

25. Have one of the volunteers write down each process involved in arranging the visit. Then next year, when those volunteers are gone, you won't be reinventing the wheel. You'll have an "owner's manual" for your future school visits.

26. Have the students write thank-you notes or make drawings to send to the author. That is just one more extension of the program; gives the students a chance to reflect on the visit and what they got out of it; reinforces common manners; and will be enjoyed and appreciated by the author.

27. Pat yourself on the back. You've enriched the curriculum, nudged the students a step farther toward better reading and writing, and made an author feel great about her day.

Thanks to Kerry Madden for suggesting this post!

Friday, March 7, 2008


Reviews are trickling in. (This is the worst part of this process for me.)

Phew! I survived!

From Kirkus:

The lives of four families change when they intersect at a run-down motel in the middle of nowhere. For years Aggie and her late husband operated the Sleepy Time Motel in the Great Smoky Mountains. Alone now and facing a drawer of unpaid bills and endless repairs on the dilapidated motel, Aggie reluctantly puts a “For Sale” ad in the paper. Eager for a new life since his wife left, Clyde makes an offer on the motel and uproots his lonely daughter Willow to the Sleepy Time. A troubled kid, Kirby and his mom are en route to a special boys’ school when their car breaks down and they show up at the motel. Filled with questions about her birth mother who has recently died, Loretta and her adoptive parents arrive at the Sleepy Time on a family vacation. As these unlikely folks come together in Aggie’s tumbledown motel, they find something they need through the friendships that form.

O’Connor artfully weaves together the hopes, fears, disappointments, sorrows and joys of her multi-generational cast to produce a warm and satisfying conclusion. (Fiction. 10-14)

From School Library Journal:

O'Connor's knack for well-deveoped characters and feisty protagonists is evident, as is her signature Southern charm."

From Booklist:

"The plainspoken text is clean, direct, and honest in its portrayal of pain and hope. Another satisfying novel with a southern setting and original characters from the author of Moonpie and Ivy and Taking Care of Moses."

From the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books:

"O'Connor fans...won't be disappointed."

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Let me check my calendar

Spring of 2010? Do lunch? Let me check my calendar....

.....Oh, sorry - I'll be busy opening my box of NEW BOOKS.

That's right, folks. That manuscript I agonized over all summer....

You know the one....

The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis...

Look for it at a bookstore near you - Spring 2010.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Author school visits by state

Children's author Kim Norman has put together a super resource for teachers and librarians:

Don't argue with me

An excerpt from a fifth grader's biography of her father. (I want to live in this house!)

At home, work is done. Jack washes dishes, washes the clothes, and more. At his home, arguing is not a problem because no one argues in Jack’s home.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Writing Tip Tuesday

The Four Deadly Sins of Children's Novel-Writing

(Deadly, but, like all sins, oh-so-easy to commit)

  • Unnecessary scenes
  • Too much backstory
  • Unclear central question
  • Undeveloped characters

To elaborate slightly:

Unnecessary scenes

Ask yourself the following questions:
  1. What is the purpose of the scene?
  2. Are there any other scenes that serve the same purpose?
  3. If I take this scene out, will it affect the story a little or a lot (or worse yet, not at all)?

Too much backstory

Ask yourself the following questions:
  1. Does the backstory affect the present story?
  2. Why does the reader need to know this information?
  3. If I take this backstory out, will it affect the story a little or a lot (or worse yet, not at all)?

Unclear central question

Ask yourself the following questions:
  1. What the heck is my story about?
  2. Does the reader know early on what the story is about?
  3. Does all of the action revolve around this central question?
Undeveloped characters

Ask yourself the following questions:
  1. Are my characters unique, definable, and likeable?
  2. Are my characters active in moving the story forward?
  3. Are all of my characters necessary to the story? (i.e., If I take a character out, will it affect the story a little, a lot or (worse yet) not at all?)

Monday, March 3, 2008

Eschew obfuscation

I bought this refrigerator for $25 about 15 years ago. It sits in my basement and keeps the coldest beer in town.

It came with the stickers on it.

I have never once heard anyone use the word obfuscation in casual conversation until last week.

Tim Gunn on Project Runway used it when referring to someone's dress design! He said something like, "I'm afraid it's just going to create obfuscation."

Saturday, March 1, 2008

And the winner is.....

I printed out all the postcard entries and put them in a basket:

I solicited the help of two unbiased parties:

Okay, choose one:


And the winner is......

Unbiased party snatched the winner from me and proceeded to play with it. [Please do not look at my raggedy slippers. Hey, they're comfortable, okay?]

And the winner is.....

Sarah Miller, Empress of the Universe!!!

Greetings from Romeo, Michigan.

Sarah will receive a signed copy of my new book, Greetings from Nowhere.

Many thanks to everyone who participated in the drawing.
Now you'll have to go out and BUY it.