Saturday, January 31, 2009

Okay, that's it....

I've officially had it with winter.

Snow, I can handle.

But ice?

Fuggedabout it!!!

Yesterday I went to the grocery store.

When I came back, I couldn't get into my driveway.

My driveway slopes uphill and is A TOTAL SHEET OF ICE.

I had to leave the car at the end of the driveway.

I got out of the car.

I tried to walk across the driveway to get into the house.



I'm not kidding you.

Can you even picture it? There I am - a grown woman - crawling across my driveway.

And to make the picture even more colorful:

I was SLIDING DOWN THE DRIVEWAY even while I was crawling!!!

I think I'm ready to play shuffleboard with the blue-hairs in Boca.....

Friday, January 30, 2009

Phoebe is home!

Hooray! Phoebe is home.

But still not out of the woods.

It's going to be a long couple of weeks.

Here's the scoop in a nutshell: She has a mass on her brain. It could be cancer. BUT, it could be an inflammation that is treatable.

The problem is that it's going to take a few weeks to see if she responds to the treatment she just went through (which would mean it's the inflammation and not cancer).

So other than looking pretty scary with a stapled incision and a catheter in her head, she is doing terrific. Alert and hungry. (Three days ago she was practically comatose!)

So I'm dipping my toes back into the universe that is life - and even writing a little today.

It's nice to be back.

Oh - and thank you to everyone who left those nice comments and who sent good vibes out into the universe!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


So, I had a moment of temporary (I hope) insanity and set up a Facebook page.

I have no idea why, except that (in the words of Geek Girl Sarah Miller) "all the cool kids are doing it." (Note: She said this in reference to something else, which of course I can't remember, but I guess it was something cool.)

Now I'm wondering what the heck I'm supposed to do with the thing.

I suddenly have all these wonderful friends - which I'm very happy about....

...but now I'm feeling like I should be doing something for all those friends.... baking brownies or whipping up batches of margaritas or something.

So, if you write something on my wall or poke me or whatever the heck you do on that thing and I don't respond, it's not because I don't like you.

It's just because I don't know what I'm doing.

And bless Mitali Perkins's heart for suggesting that I add my blog feed or whatever it is she called it. I actually managed to do it.

To complicate matters, I'm kind of spinning out of control due to the illness of my beloved Phoebe, so my head is a-spin (is that a word? It should be.) and I just can't deal with Facebook panic at the moment.

So, have patience with me, Friends.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

My life on hold

Thanks so much to everyone who sent good vibes and kind words for my dog, Phoebe.

She is still in intensive care at the veterinary hospital..... my life is kind of on hold at the moment.

My universe has gotten off its orbit a little bit. Know what I mean?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Good vibes

Okay, I know everybody has ALA awards on the brain, but I need you to take one millisecond to send a MAJOR GOOD MOJO VIBE out into the universe for my beloved Phoebe, who is pretty sick and needs good vibes.



Progress report

Friday, January 23, 2009

Those amazing fifth graders

I present the following - word for word - excerpts from biographies written by fifth graders.

These are the first drafts!

This one was a biography of the student's grandmother:

It was September 19, 1939 in Wanne Eickel, Germany and many sounds could be heard. The pitter patter of rain on the decorative shop windows. The clip clop of the horses’ feet on the depressing gray cobblestone streets and an unusual laugh of a tiny baby.

I love the choppy cadence of the next one. It's a student's biography of her father, who grew up in Kenya:

On a hot summer day, picking out weeds. Hearing the chickens. Bock bock bock. The goats munching on bright green grass and milk splashing down into the silver rusty bucket. Plop plop plop. Corn stalks taller than him and the small vegetable garden.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Video reviews

I love those Diary of a Wimpy Kid books - but even more than that, I love that a kids' book that is so funny and "boy-friendly" has become such a hit.

How great is this:

Thanks to Galleycat for the link.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Fourth File Foto

Heather over at Needles and Pens tagged me for a fun photo meme.

The point is to go to your fourth photo folder (on your computer), choose the fourth photo, and write about it.

Here is my fourth photo:

This is the grave of a dog named Loud that was in the coon dog cemetery in Mynot, Alabama.

A few years ago, my husband and son and I went on a week-long roadtrip through the South (Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana).

Seeking all of the significant cultural and educational hotspots, we visited such sites as:

The Cross Garden in Prattville, Alabama.

(Note: The only other person I've ever known who has also visited this highly cultural and educational hotspot is author Kerry Madden.)

The birthplace of Elvis in Tupelo, Mississippi

Colonel Poole's BBQ and Pig Hall of Fame in Elijay, Georgia

(Note: The only other person I've ever known who has also visited this highly cultural and educational hotspot is author Stacy DeKeyser.)


the Coon Dog Cemetery in Mynot, Alabama.

Now, here's the noteworthy thing about that: it plays a significant role in my next book, The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis.

Note to the IRS: See? I told you this was a research trip that qualified for a tax write-off!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Writing Tip Tuesday

Remember that Gloria Estefan song, The Rhythm is Gonna Get You?

[This video takes a couple of seconds to start...patience....]


She makes me want to be a hot, Cuban chick.

But, um, I guess that's not gonna happen.


Rhythm of writing is important to me.

I know when the rhythm is off.

I know when something is needed to make the rhythm better.

I almost NEVER leave blanks in drafts - you know, typing in [INSERT SOMETHING HERE LATER].

I hate doing that.

But sometimes, I just have to.

I know something is needed and I just can't come up with the perfect thing but I need to get on with the writing.

And often, that something has to do with rhythm.

For instance, in my work-in-progress novel, there is a scene where the main character and his friends are looking for something beside a railroad track.

Here's what I wrote:

They found a bicycle wheel with broken spokes.
They found a bullet-riddled stop sign.

They found the bent-up frame of an aluminum lawn chair.

They found a mildewed, mud-covered sofa cushion.

They found a grocery cart with two missing wheels.

They found cinder blocks and broken bottles and ____.

I knew that the last sentence needed three things to make the rhythm right.

But I just couldn't think of the third thing.... I left a blank.

Which is what made me think about rhythm in writing.

(By the way, I did later fill in that blank with rusty cans.)

But now that I look at that, I'm thinking I have too many sentences - I should delete one - or maybe even two...but, dang, I like all those things.

I hate murdering my darlings.


Here's another example.

I spent quite a while on the following paragraph because, once again, I knew I needed three sentences (after the first one), each starting with an -ing verb:

Maybe he should be swimming freely around Graham Pond. Gliding gracefully through the water. Floating among the rotting oak leaves that had settled on the surface. Sunning lazily on the moss-covered logs along the edges.

I also knew that the word logs needed an adjective.

It was just a rhythm thing.

So here's my point: Pay attention to the rhythm of your writing. Some writing voices/styles have more rhythm than others - but no matter what your voice is, there is some sort of rhythm in there.

Maybe it's the balance of short and long sentences.

Maybe it's the length of paragraphs or even chapters.

Maybe it's the word choice.

Maybe it's all of the above.

Write with an ear to your own personal rhythm and learn to recognize when it is "off."

The rhythm is gonna get you.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Forest vs Trees

I was delighted to hear from a number of teachers regarding my post about dead matter.

Some of them wanted to share this part of the writing process with their students, which I think is a great idea.

So I thought it might also be helpful to clarify, for those students or anyone else not familiar with the book-making process, the difference between the job of the editor and the job of the copyeditor.

That stack of papers in the photo of that blog post represents manuscript pages that came w-a-a-a-y into the process of creating that book - long after the initial story first came to life.

To fast forward through the first stages of creating a book:
1. I get a brilliant idea for a story.
2. I write the first draft of that story.
3. I read it 4,583 times, each time changing words, adding words, moving words, fixing words.
4. Another draft, another draft, another draft.
5. I finally get it "right" and send it to my publishing company.

The first person at the publishing company to get her mitts on the manuscript is the editor.

The editor is the person who helps me with the story.

She questions the characters' motivations for their actions.

She tells me the parts that don't make sense or are confusing.

She wonders if I really need a particular scene.

She helps me clarify my vision of the story and then helps that story become the one I envisioned.

(And she manages to do this without hurting my feelings, making me cry, or causing me to eat large quantities of Oreo cookies.)

A big job.

Here's an example that comes to mind while working on Greetings from Nowhere:

I knew I wanted to write a multiple viewpoint story. And I wanted to write some of the same scenes as seen through the eyes of different characters.

It worked for a while.

But about halfway through the manuscript, there was a scene that involved Willow and Loretta washing lawn chairs at the motel.

I wrote that scene twice - thru the eyes of two different characters.

My editor told me that when she got to that scene the second time, she felt frustrated. She felt like she had already "been there/done that" - that I was simply repeating the same thing.

She felt that this slowed the story down.

She wanted the story to keep moving forward instead of spinning in the same place.

I was disappointed.

I felt like I had failed in some way.

But......she was right.

That second version of the same scene was unnecessary. It did slow the story down.

It just didn't work.

I got rid of it....

....and the story moved forward and was stronger and better.

That's what editors do - they see the forest. (They care about the trees, of course, but the forest is the focus initially.)

After the story becomes as right as we can make it, it moves along through the process until it eventually gets to the copyeditor.

The copyeditor is the one who sees the trees - the little things, like I pointed out in the dead matter post.

The shoe had one hole on page 91 and two holes on page 189.

I used the word "little" three times in one paragraph.

Shouldn't I try to think of other ways to say "every now and then"?

They see the trees.

Some folks look at the forest.

Some folks look at the trees.

It takes a village to make a book.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

I'm trying

When I started my African drumming lessons, I had no idea I was going to also be doing some African SINGING.

Hey, I'm trying....really....I'm trying.

This is a short recording from my last class.

I dare you...try it.....

Friday, January 16, 2009

Worth reading

Geek Girl Empress of the Universe (author Sarah Miller) has some interesting things to say here.

Sell me something...please

If anybody has any oceanview property in Arizona, call me. I'll buy it.

I'm the person they invented Infomercials for.

Ginzu knives? Sign me up...

Masterbuilt smokehouse 4-rack digital electric smoker? Gotta have it.

So, the other day I was watching Oprah (hey, I was on my treadmill...that makes it okay...)

And Gwyneth Paltrow was on there looking all movie-starry.

And Oprah is in her how-did-I-get-so-fat-again phase and was obsessing about how to look all movie-starry like that.

So Gwynnie is all, like, "I WORK HARD FOR THIS BODY, PEOPLE and you all can just quit yer whining and do it, too."

(You know, Gwyneth rushes in the door after a hard day at the office and a quick stop-off at Wal Mart and has to put all the groceries away and whip up a meat loaf or two and bathe the kids and clean out the litter box and THEN she can finally grab a little time for herself to work out.)

And then she did it - Gwyneth made me buy this workout DVD because she and Madonna use it.

Madonna, people.

I know, I know....

But my point is this - never trust a woman working out in a bikini wearing thigh high leather boots.

I have spent the last two weeks trying to learn the dang cardio combinations (well, that's what they call them: cardio combinations) and haven't even gotten to the workout part yet! (And I've tap danced my whole life, so I mean, I'm fairly coordinated so what the heck is up with that?)

But I am determined to master that thing.

I like to mix up my workouts. Treadmill? Got it. Use it.

DDR? Got it. Use it.

Wii Fit? Got it. Use it.

So I AM going to use this DVD.

Now where the heck did I put my workout bikini?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Dublin Literacy Conference

I'll be speaking at the Dublin Literacy Conference in Dublin, Ohio, on February 21 - along with many other terrific authors and educators.

If you're in the area, come on by!

I'm taking the lazy blogger's approach today and just linking to Franki's and Mary Lee's blog (A Year of Reading) - where you'll find Everything You Need to Know about the Dublin Literacy Conference.

Thanks, Franki and Mary Lee!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Mock Newbery

Now THAT is interesting!

Progress report

Premio Dardos Award


The amazing writer Kerry Madden (my Smoky Mountain Soul Sister) has presented me with the Premio Dardos Award, described below!

I have no idea what premio dardos means. I thought it meant "first daddy," but I guess not.

Thanks, Kerry!!

Dear Barbara,

I would like to present the Premio Dardos Award to you. This award acknowledges blogs that have cultural, ethical, literary and personal values.

Please accept this award by posting it on your blog along with the name of the person that has granted the award and a link to his/her blog.

Pass the award along to other blogs that are worthy of this acknowledgement, remembering to contact each of them to let them know they have been selected for this award. Again, congratulations!

All best


PS Barbara, I'm just your biggest fan. I love what you do with this blog and how dang CONSISTENT and wonderful it is! Thanks for everything you do for authors and kids and thanks for your beautiful books!

Kids say the darnedest things

Excerpts from letters from kids after a school visit:

"I thank you for coming and I am jumpy for your newest book."

"Your presentation was a lot better than the last author that came here!"

"Hey. I'm the one that complemented your writing and then regretted it."

"You were awesome up there. Now I know how to write. You talt [sic] me how to write a book. Thanks a hole [sic] lot. You were great even in front of like 94 kids."

The next one is in reference to Taking Care of Moses. I love it when kids invent words that make so much sense:

"I have been to a church before and I have seen babies being bathtized"

This next one is so eloquent. His mother would be darned proud:

"Now that you have told my fellow classmates and I about how you incorporate your life with your books, it makes me want to read all of your books. You are kind of a celebrity now at our school, but at least you are a real person. Barbara O'Connor, you are a really good writer and presenter."

[Now THAT kid may grow up to be President!]

Monday, January 12, 2009

Small Graces

Go ahead...make my day

I received the following lovely email yesterday:

Jill, from the Well Read Child blog, asked a discussion question this week. She wanted to know what book we couldn't live without in our classroom. Thought you might like to see my response:

This fall, I used HOW TO STEAL A DOG as a read aloud with a group of struggling fourth and fifth grade readers. Georgina, the main character in the book, is living in her car with her mother and younger brother in their car, because her father has abandoned the family. She decides to steal a dog and use the reward money to help her family get an apartment.

My kids LOVED this book. My school is in a pretty tough neighborhood- we have lots of single parents and grandparents raising grandbabies, parents without jobs, family members in jail, foster care, being evicted from apartments, etc. My kids, I think, came away with the life lesson that sometimes good people make bad choices. They also, I think, felt comforted that there were other people surviving the same hard lives that they have. Four months later, they are still talking about this book.

You know, writers so often send their creations out into the world and then lose track of them - never knowing for sure how their work is influencing (or not) the very kids they create for.

So it's great to hear from teachers or others who work with kids and to learn about how my work is being received out there in the real world.

THAT was definitely a made-my-day email.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Lessons from dead matter

When Lisa Graff at FSG asked me if I wanted the dead matter for Greetings from Nowhere, I said yes.

Then I wondered why.

Why did I want more paper to add to all the boxes of other paper in my office?

(And don't you just hate that term "dead matter" anyway? It sounds so, well, um, dead.)

But after I received it, I sat down and took a look at it and realized that it's kind of a learning experience -

to read through past revisions and notes -

to see what a big difference little changes make -

and to wonder "what was I thinking?".

Here are some of the changes found in that dead matter:

1. Aggie shook her head. Harold would have fixed that old spotlight. He would have opened up his rusty toolbox [out back in the shed] and found just the right tool and gone straight out there and fixed it.

[We took out the phrase "out back in the shed." It wasn't necessary and it tightened the sentence. Fewer words = tighter sentence]

2. rose-covered envelope changed to rose-bordered envelope

[Just made more sense, really...]

3. her mother squinted her eyes and tilted her chin up ...was changed to... her mother narrowed her eyes

[Squinted? Eeeeyew. What was I thinking?]

4. a heart-shaped box lined with red velvet...was changed to... a heart-shaped box made of red velvet

[I have no earthly idea why I made that change. I think maybe it was because the character hadn't opened the box yet, so wouldn't know it was lined with red velvet. ??]

5. Now, this seems to be my personal writing boogie-man - the use of the word "of" following the word "off." [Geez, those copyeditors are so irritating.]

  • she couldn't take her eyes off [of] all those things.
  • couldn't take her eyes off [of] the photograph [on same page!]- This was changed to She stared down at the photograph.
  • took the lid off [of] the heart-shaped box
  • Burla's box off [of] the floor
  • wiped mud off [of] it

6. Willow looked down at her shoes. The pink plastic sandals that Dorothy had bought. They were getting too small. They were starting to hurt her feet [a little]. But Willow didn't care. She loved wearing them, anyway.

Then a little further down on the same page:

Her father turned the radio on. That little vein twitched again.

[So I had two "littles" too close together. But I really didn't even need the first one. I mean, her shoes hurt. It doesn't really matter if they hurt "a little," right? So I took out the first "little."]

7. Now here's an example of one of those changes suggested by a copyeditor that is right, but that loses the rhythm of the writing for me - so I had to figure out a compromise:

Original version: Willow stared glumly out the window. She was a long, long way from Hailey, North Carolina.

The copyeditor pointed out that the characters are still in North Carolina, so we should delete "North Carolina." She's right, of course. (She's always right. SO irritating.) That would leave us with She was a long, long way from Hailey, which didn't have the rhythm I wanted.

Revised version: She was a long, long way from her little brick house in Hailey.

That seems like a picky thing, but those are the kinds of phrases and wording that is important to me.

8. Another one of my writing boogie men is the use of the phrase "every now and then".

I had to come up with various alternatives, such as "every few minutes" and "every once in a while."

9. On p. 91: Willow looked down at Aggie's canvas sneakers. They were wet and muddy. One of them had a frayed hole in the side and Aggie's little toe poked out.

The copyeditor wrote in the margin: See p. 189

On p. 189: Then she put on her canvas sneakers with the holes in the side and grabbed a hat.

The copyeditor wrote in the margin: See p 91; only one hole

She catches that little thang NINETY-EIGHT pages later!!!

I told you she was irritating, um, I mean amazing.

By the way, I changed the second one to " Then she put on her old canvas sneakers and grabbed a hat."

10. Changed dingy white wall to dingy gray wall - because can there be such a thing as dingy white?

11. "Echoes" drive me nuts. An "echo" is the repetition of words and/or words that sound alike):

He watched his mother march across the parking lot and disappear up the side of the road. When he went outside, the sun was just appearing over the top of the mountains. The air was cool and damp. He could hear the eighteen wheelers roaring up the interstate on the other side of the ridge behind the motel.

The echoes here are disappear and appearing; and side of; outside; and side

The copyeditor puts a little red check mark over those words.

This was changed to: He watched his mother march across the parking lot and disappear up the road. When he went outside, the sun was just peeking over the top of the mountains. The air was cool and damp. He could hear the eighteen wheelers roaring up the interstate on the other side of the ridge behind the motel.

12. I include this last one just because it seemed funny to me looking back at it:

For "Shut your trap" in pig Latin, I originally had rap-tay for "trap." The copyeditor corrected it to ap-tray.

And so, there you have it.

Lessons from dead matter.

Little things mean a lot, don't they?

P.S. I just realized that the subject heading of this post is similar to Lessons from a Dead Girl by Jo Knowles - so I'm sending her a shout-out.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Grace Notes

Here is a fantastic charity event created by author Grace Lin.

I've done some work with the Foundation for Children's Books and I can assure you that it is a great organization that does so much good on behalf of literacy. (They have sponsored my workshops in inner city schools for several years.)

I hope you will all support this terrific cause and check out Grace's auction.

I feel like chicken tonight

I adore my dogs' vet.

She's smart and funny and warm and kind.

I always listen to her.

I do whatever she tells me to do.

But, um, she told me I should brush my dogs' teeth.

And they each should have their own toothbrush.

And what could be better than poultry flavored toothpaste?

I don't know....

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

My weird day

Okay, so here's my weird day.

I was scheduled to do a writing workshop in a town that is about an hour and a half away.

The weather forecast was grim.

They were right.

My husband and son got up at 4 a.m. to head to the airport for their flight to FLORIDA. (Talk about NO FAIR!)

I was up at 4:30.

By 5:30 - showered, dressed, made up, fueled with coffee, ready to go.

Phone rings.

Two-hour school opening delay - which flubbed up the schedule of the workshop.

Now rescheduled for tomorrow.

So I got back in my jammies. Grabbed another cup of coffee. Whistled for the dogs. Got back in bed - TO WRITE!


But I'd rather be in Florida. (Although I just got a message from my son who says they are still on the tarmac two hours later and being offered complimentary water. Heh....)

Sorry, all you authors out there

I have officially written the best book in the world.

At least, that's what Jake from Virginia told me in his letter to me:

"You have written the best book in the world."

That's what he said....

....and I believe him.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

When I was young and dumb

I was cruising the internet recently and came across this web site that was featuring various styles of salt cellars.

I was instantly transported back to an episode from my past that is so hilarious I will share it with you. (Enough time has gone by that I am no longer totally humiliated by the thought of it.)

When I was in college, I was visiting the parents of a boyfriend. (They lived out of state.)

I was extremely nervous and trying my best to make a good impression.

His parents were kind of fancy schmancy.

His father was a colonel in the army and his mother was the daughter of a three-star general.

Their son (my boyfriend) had shoulder-length hair and was a major hippie (i.e., not the pride of the Colonel).

[I'm just setting the stage you can imagine the, uh, overall aura of it all.]

At the breakfast table the first morning, the four of us sat there in stiff, fancy schmancy awkwardness.

Everyone was kind of dressed up and the table was all decked out with china and silver and linen and all. [Note: no Cornflakes boxes in sight.]

There was a sterling silver salt cellar on the table.

I had never seen a salt cellar in my life.

I never even knew salt cellars existed.

I mean, who in the world would put salt in a little silver bowl, for criminey's sake?

I thought it was sugar.


But, come on....I was just a little hillbilly girl (pretending to be a fancy schmancy girl).

So I put the "sugar" in my coffee.

Um, imagine my surprise when I took my first big gulp of that coffee.


But I couldn't tell those proper folks what I had done. (I'm assuming they didn't see me do it....surely they would have told me, right?)

So I had to fake it.

I drank that entire cup of coffee, by golly.

I do not recommend drinking salted coffee.

Writing Tip Tuesday

Here's a little writing mistake that I find is easy to make:

Forgetting about the setting.

Sometimes I lay out the setting at the beginning of the book. I throw in all those great details to show the reader where we are...

...and then I amble along (or ramble along) with the story and forget to remind the reader about the setting - to toss in more sensory details so the reader can still see where she is.

So - don't forget to remind the reader about the setting.

It doesn't have to be anything major.

One little sentence.

One little phrase.

Just enough to keep the reader grounded in the place and time.

For example:

I just finished writing a scene that takes place in the main character's bedroom.

The reason he is in the bedroom, instead of being outside where he really wants to be, is because it is raining.

And not just rain, but a thunderstorm.

But I got all caught up in action of the scene in the bedroom...

...and I forgot that it was storming outside.

When I went back and added the rain pattering against the window and the thunder rumbling in the distance - the whole scene came alive and reconnected with the previous scene in the story.

So - don't get so caught up in the action of the story that you forget about the setting.

Monday, January 5, 2009

I know I'm old, but SHEESH

A kid asked me at a school recently if I've ever met Nathaniel Hawthorne.

I'm not kidding.....

Saturday, January 3, 2009

I probably shouldn't admit this

Yesterday I was working on an ongoing project - putting all of our family photos into better (acid-free) photo albums.

I came across this picture of me and my niece performing a dance during the Thanksgiving holidays eight years ago.

Notice the date.

Notice my son making a "loser" sign behind my back.

But here's another startling thing I noticed.

See that shirt I'm wearing?

I was wearing the exact same shirt yesterday!

Eight years later!

It's my favorite shirt.

I got it at the Gap at least 10 years ago.

It's really, really soft and all worn in and cotton-y and comfy.

And it's getting dangerously close to the rag bag.

But, hey, you can't say I didn't get my money's worth....

Thursday, January 1, 2009


Hurray for Alvin Ho!!

Go, Alvin...go, Alvin....go, Alvin....

Happy New Year!

The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly.