Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Writing Tip Tuesday

Today I turn the tipping over to Philip Martin, of Great Lakes Literary Agency.

Philip Martin is the editor of The New Writer's Handbook (which includes my short article on working with kids, "Show, Don't Tell.")

He offers the following advice on telling a fresh story:

The core of the writer's challenge is to tell a fresh story. As William M. Thackeray (Victorian novelist, author of Vanity Fair), summed it up: "The two most engaging powers of a good author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new."

But how? How to put a fresh spin on old and common themes?

As children's book author Morris Gleitzman says on his website:

"I don't think you can make emotions up, no matter how good your imagination is. (. . .) All we can do is use the emotions we all feel every day. Love, hate, hope, fear, excitement, jealousy, sadness, guilt, joy, anxiety, etc. The characters in our stories may be feeling them for different reasons to us, but they're the same emotions. (. . .)

"So part of the storytelling process for me is to find interesting and unusual reasons for characters to have the emotions that the rest of us experience every day for familiar reasons."

The key to the trick: "interesting and unusual." In a word: quirky.

Too many beginning authors prefer to create a familiar, likable character, someone who doesn't rock the fictional boat . . . while the ones we enjoy the most (think about it) are often the quirkiest, from Pippi Longstocking to Holden Caulfield to . . .

Find the character that swims against the tide, and you've got a core element of a good story.

For more about Philip Martin, visit The Writers Handbook Blog.

Monday, April 29, 2013

EVERY word matters

I recently started reading a book that grabbed me from the get-go with its distinctive voice:

Beholding Bee by Kimberly Newton Fusco

Distinctive voice is the one element that makes me fall in love with a book more than any other. (Character comes in second.)

So, I'm reading along...la la la....and then....

Screeeeech (That's the sound of brakes)

I came to a word that stopped me in my tracks. 

Or rather, I thought I came to a word that stopped me in my tracks.  

Here's what I thought I read:

Pauline knows I am talking about the old lady in the orange floppy hat.

The word that stopped me was floppy.

That was NOT the right word.

It didn't fit the voice of the writing.

But I shrugged it off and kept reading.

Before long, I came to this:

Pauline does not like me talking about the lady in the orange flappy hat.


Now that is the right word.  

Flappy fits in just perfectly with the voice of the writing. 

So I went back to the page where I thought I read floppy and guess what? The word was flappy all along.


And isn't it amazing how much one little word matters?


Friday, April 26, 2013

Nancy Cavanaugh is in the house!

I’m always on the lookout for fresh new middle grade books and I found one! 

This Journal Belongs to Ratchet has a fresh story, a fresh character, a fresh format.

Eleven-year-old homeschooled Rachel Vance, aka Ratchet (because of her flair for fixing cars), yearns to go to school like the other kids in the neighborhood; to buy new clothes, not clothes from thrift stores; to have a “normal” dad, not a wild-haired grease monkey of a father with a passion for environmental causes, and most of all, to know if the contents of a mysterious box will tell her more about the mother she never knew.

Cavanaugh adeptly lays out the story through Ratchet’s writing assignments, using a variety of formats, including free verse poetry, freewriting, descriptive essay, list poetry, journal writing.

The story flows like a well-tuned engine – at a pace that will keep middle-grade readers turning the pages like  a double overhead cam V-12 and enough action to jumpstart their interest like a fresh spark plug. Okay, okay….my car engine references are lame, but Ratchet’s story is anything but.

 From the book jacket:

If only getting a new life were as easy as getting a new notebook. But it’s not.

It’s the first day of school for all the kids in the neighborhood. But not for me. I’m homeschooled. That means nothing new. No new book bag, no new clothes, and no friends – old or new.

The best I’ve got is this notebook. I’m supposed to use it for my writing assignments, but my dad never checks. Here’s what I’m really going to use it for:

Project Goal:
Turn my old, recycled, freakish, friendless, motherless life into something shiny and new.
This year, I’m going to make something change.

And now, I’m pleased to introduce author Nancy Cavanaugh:

Nancy Cavanaugh
I loved the way you used the writing exercises to tell Ratchet’s story.  How did you decide which writing format to use for each chapter?
I’m a former teacher, so for us teachers, it’s easy to come up with writing assignments.  The difference this time was that I was the one coming up with the assignments, and I was the one who had to do the assignments.  Most of them are assignments I used while teaching, but I did eventually run out of ideas.  When that happened, I used one of my old language arts textbooks and checked out other writing textbooks from the library to get more ideas.  

As for deciding which assignment to use for each part of the story, I have to say the story sort of decided that for me.  It seemed that each part of the story was best told through a specific writing form, and this was really just something I figured out as I went along.

Which type of writing in the book is your favorite?

Though I love it all, I have to say that the poetry is my favorite – not because I think it’s better than the other writing assignments and not because I necessarily like poetry better than the other formats.  I like the poetry best because in most cases, I used poetry to tell the most emotional parts of the story.  Each word in the poetry seems packed with Ratchet’s passion, and that somehow makes the poetry more powerful.

As the wife of a car enthusiast, I related to the car repair aspects
of the story.  I read on your website that you have experience in that area.  Was it difficult coming up with car repair work that an 11-year-old could realistically do?

Well, here’s the thing.  I’m married to a former industrial arts
teacher.  He taught me how to take apart a small engine and put it back together again, and the two of us taught elementary and middle school students how to do the same thing.  It was great fun and super satisfying to see how capable kids can be when it comes to this kind of stuff.  When working on engines, what it really comes down to is understanding how they work, and kids are certainly capable of understanding that.  As a result, a kid like Ratchet would have no trouble helping her dad the way she did in the story.

I know that like most authors, you’ve probably put bits and pieces of your real life into your story, such as the car repair work.  Can you give us any other examples of how you’ve used real life tidbits and/or some that you tweaked a bit to fictionalize it?
The best example of that in this story is Ratchet’s father.  All of his “Good Lord” antics come from my Grandma Cavanaugh.  She used to always say, “The Good Lord says this . . . The Good Lord says that . . . .”  So I had fun using that part of her personality to make Ratchet’s dad the passionate person that he is.

I’m always interested to know:  a plotter/outliner or a go-with-the-flow kind of writer?

My ideas for stories almost always start with a character.  I think about who that character really is inside and what their problems might be.  As I do that, the character’s voice begins to emerge.  The character and voice come much easier than the plot.  When I have to determine the direction of the story and start figuring out the plot, the writing gets more difficult for  me.

What can you tell us about your relationship with your editor at Sourcebooks?
My editor is Aubrey Poole, and first I’ll tell you that she’s amazing!  Through lots of revision, she has done so much to make RATCHET the beautiful book that it is.  I’m so grateful for her vision of what the book really could be, and I’m thankful for her insights and her patience as we worked together to take the story to another level. 
Can you tell us anything about what’s next?
My next book, ALWAYS, ABIGAIL, will be coming in fall 2014 from Sourcebooks/Jabberwocky and will be another alternative format.  The entire story is told in lists, letters, and writing assignments, in which a girl named Abigail uses her language arts class’s Friendly Letter Project to cope with the worst school year ever – and in the process turns it into the best year ever.

A great classroom guide to This Journal Belongs to Ratchet is HERE.

Visit Nancy's website HERE

Read Nancy's chat with Augusta Scattergood HERE.

Read about Nancy at Smack Dab in the Middle HERE.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Things I Love Thursday

I love to read student writing like this:

From a 4th grade boy writing a paragraph showing setting:

Jack's feet danced as they touched the blazing sand. He looked to his left. There were picnic tables. He looked to his right. A barren lake was sitting there luring him to it. Jack sprinted to the docks. He dove ten feet deep and swam to the raft. Once there, he cannon-balled ten times. The sky was turning purple over the horizon.

"Jack! We have to go now," screamed his mom.

"On my way," he replied.

That wonderful day must come to an end. Now it was dark. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Writing Tip Tuesday

From Rosemary Wells in an essay entitled: The Well-Tempered Children's Book (From Worlds of Childhood: The Art and Craft of Writing for Children; Zinsser):

Writing about anything is a mistake. The only books that work are those which fly through the air - the ones you let happen, not make happen.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Things I Love Thursday

I love getting letters like this from kids:

It was fun to meet you in person and it felt good that we got similar reading and writing report card grades. 

Also, it felt really good you called me an author during our library meeting. My mom was proud. If I become an author, I'll come to my old schools to inspire future authors, too.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Writing Tip Tuesday

Today's tip is short and to the point.

Once again, I quote from Jack Prelutsky, in Worlds of Childhood: The Art and Craft of Writing for Children (Zinsser):

Children love to be surprised.

Enough said.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Things I Love Thursday

 I love reading student writing.

From a fourth grade boy writing a paragraph that shows the setting of summer at the beach:

As the sun melted my face, I tasted the grains of salt sticking to my shirt. I saw green mixing with the orange, red, and purple to form the horizon. I hear schools of fish jump out of the everlasting water. I couldn't resist the urge to pull out my fishing pole and throw the sandy worm into the unknown.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Dear Barbara O'Connor

Dear Barbara O'Connor:

I like to read books about animals and monsters. I like the book How to Steal a Dog because the kids are funny. 

I do have a wish. I wish you would have put a couple of monsters in it.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Writing Tip Tuesday

In an essay by Jack Prelutsky entitled: In Search of the Addle-paged Paddlepuss (included in an anthology entitled: Worlds of Childhood: The Art and Craft of Writing for Children; edited by William Zinsser), he says:

One of the main differences between a poet and a non-poet is that a poet knows he is not going to remember what happened. Therefore he is smart enough to carry a notebook and write it down....Another secret of writing, along with taking notes, is keeping your eyes and your ears open, keeping your mind and your heart open, and being aware of what's going on around you.

I think it's important for writers to pay attention to the extraordinary in the ordinary - to notice the small things around us that the average observer might not notice or note to memory.

And when you notice those small things, WRITE THEM DOWN.

Now, granted, I have to write down, "Get up in the morning," but, still....I try to write down the little things that catch my attention.

Example: While visiting my friend, D, last week, she told me that when she was a little girl, she loved going to visit her aunt in Vermont. One of her most vivid memories about those visits is that her aunt always served her three things - one of which she loved and two of which she hated.

The three things were:
No matter how often she told her aunt that she hated tripe and Moxie, her aunt still served them to her when she came to visit.

Now, I don't know about you, but I find that pretty interesting.

And as much as I'd like to think that I will always remember that, I wrote it down.

Some day, I will need to draw from my well of extraordinary things and there will be that list.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Things I Love Thursday

I love looking at all the eggs on the family Easter egg tree.
So many memories.

And I love this one made for me by a student!


Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Share Our Books

I'm sad to report that the Share Our Books program has been discontinued.


I have donated the 250 copies of The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis to The Foundation for Children's Books, so at least I know they will be in good hands.

Special thanks to Sara Pennypacker for her efforts with Share Our Books.  

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Writing Tip Tuesday

Author Joan Aiken says, in her book, The Way to Write for Children:

If you have found a voice for your book, even if the plot and characters are still at the embryonic stage of development, your battle is half won already.

I couldn't agree more - except to maybe argue that your battle is more than half won already.

At least, that is certainly the case for me.

I am just beginning a middle grade novel.

Sometimes I find myself in that painful, groping-in-the-dark stage - not quite sure of exactly where the story is headed.

Not 100% sure about a couple of characters.

But I know the voice of the book.

I don't mean the writing voice.

I mean the voice of the book - its overall aura - its style - its feeling.

I'm pretty sure my writing voice is fairly consistent - but the voice of my books changes.

Moonpie and Ivy is, for lack of a better word, kind of sad (okay, that's three words).*

Fame and Glory in Freedom, Georgia is light-hearted and friendly.

Greetings from Nowhere is a bit, hmmm, nostalgic? No, that's not the right word. Heart-warming? Yeah, maybe that's better.

The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis is upbeat and humorous.

But those are really descriptions of mood - which I think is an element of book voice.

Other elements are the rhythm, the pace, the overall tone, the word choice - most of the same elements that make up writing voice.

Once I know the book voice, it's a heck of a lot easier to move forward with the stuff I'm not 100% sure of.

So - my tip?

Be sure of the voice of your book from the get-go. If you waffle along between edgy, humorous, dramatic, sad, upbeat, etc. - your struggle will be greater and your outcome not as rewarding.

*I once had a kid at a school ask me: "Why do you write such depressing books?" So, um, maybe depressing is a better word. Heh.

Monday, April 1, 2013

A Big Shout-Out to Hampden Meadows

I've been lucky to have been invited to Hampden Meadows Elementary School in Barrington, Rhode Island, for quite a few years now.

It's one of those schools that does everything right and makes my visit so special for the students, the staff, and ME!

I went back last week and it was as wonderful as always.

A lovely greeting at the front door.
 The students had been busy making projects to display throughout the school!

They drew pictures of some of the characters in my books.

The drawings included the physical description, character traits, hobbies and interests, and facts about each character.

Nearly every window was covered with drawings.

Some of the classes had made charts showing key elements of each book. I think they did a great job!

Mrs. Burgess's class had a discussion after my presentation and brainstormed things they liked, learned and will remember. (I like that they think I'm "sparkly.")
When I visited Ms. Roy's class, the students showed me which books they were reading.

Some more thoughtful art brought to the presentation to show me.
One student wrote a poem about one of my books and read it to me!!! Such a treat.

They even presented me with a basket of beautiful daffodils!

Thank you to librarian extraordinaire, Mrs. Austin, and the students and staff for making my visit so special.

And now.....here they are....the fantastic students and staff of Hampden Meadows Elementary School!!