Monday, July 29, 2013

It was a setup (Part 3)

Today, I'm in happy teacher mode to continue discussing setup.

Part 1 is HERE.

Part 2 is HERE.

To recap:

The setup answers the following questions:
  • Who are the main characters?
  • Where does the story take place?
  • When does the story take place?
  • And the most important question of all: What is the story about?
Let’s take a look at one more example of setup from another experienced writer: Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

Here is the opening of Shiloh:

The day Shiloh come, we’re having us a big Sunday dinner. Dara Lynn’s dipping bread in her glass of cold tea, the way she likes, and Becky pushes her beans up over the edge of her plate in her rush to get ‘em down.

Ma gives us her scolding look. “Just once in my life,” she says, “I’d like to see a bit of food go direct from the dish into somebody’s mouth without a detour of any kind.”

She’s looking at me when she says it, tough. It isn’t that I don’t like fried rabbit. Like it fine. I just don’t want to bite down on buckshot, is all, and I’m checking each piece.

“I looked that rabbit over good, Marty, and you won’t find any buckshot in that thigh,” Dad says, buttering his bread. “I shot him in the neck.”

Somehow I wish he hadn’t said that. I push the meat from one side of my plate to the other, through the sweet potatoes and back again.

“Did it die right off?” I ask, knowing I can’t eat at all unless it had.

“Soon enough.”

“You shoot its head clean off?” Dara Lynn asks. She’s like that.

Dad chews real slow before he answers. “Not quite,” he says, and goes on eating.

Which is when I leave the table.

We know right away that the story takes place in a country, backwoods setting. 

Our clues? 

1. The grammar (“The day Shiloh come, we’re having us a big Sunday dinner”); 

2. The menu (fried rabbit); and 

3. The fact that Dad has shot the rabbit himself and that this seems to be a regular occurrence.

We know who the main character is (the narrator, Marty) and his family members.

We also know that Marty is a softhearted boy, i.e. character development

He doesn’t like hearing that his Dad shot the rabbit in the neck and it’s important to him that the rabbit died “right off.”

The story continues:

The best thing about Sundays is we eat our big meal at noon. Once you get your belly full, you can walk all over West Virginia before you’re hungry again. Any other day, you start out after dinner, you’ve got to come back when it’s dark.

I take the .22 rifle Dad had given me in March on my eleventh birthday and set out up the road to see what I can shoot. Like to find me an apple hanging way out o a branch, see if I can bring it dow. Line up a few cans on a rail fence and shoot ‘em off. Never shoot at anything moving, though. Never had the slightest wish.

We live high up in the hills over Friendly, but hardly anybody knows where that is. Friendly’s near sistersville, which is halfway between Wheeling and Parkersburg. Use to be, my daddy told me, Sistersville was one of the best places you could live in the whole state. You ask me the best place to live, I’d say right where we are, a little four-room house with hills on three sides.

Now we know that Marty is eleven years old. 

His softhearted nature is reinforced here when he tells us that he never shoots at anything moving.

Naylor also reveals where the story takes place: the small town of Friendly, West Virginia. 

We know Marty lives in a “little four-room house with hills on three sides” but more importantly, we know that he loves it there - he considers it “the best place to live.”

Two paragraphs later:

And this particular afternoon, I’m about halfway up the road along the river when I see something out of the corner of my eye.

Something moves. I look, and about fifteen yards off, there’s this shorthaired dog - white with brown and black spots - not making any kind of noise, just slinking along with his head down, watching me, tail between his legs like he’s hardly got the right to breath. A beagle, maybe a year or two old.

The reader is now getting a sense of what the story is about with the introduction of a beagle. This is a dog story.

On the next three pages, the beagle follows Marty home. Marty’s father asks about where the dog came from:

“On the road by the river? Bet that’s Judd Travers’s beagle,” says Dad. “He got himself another hunting dog a few weeks back.”

“Judd got him a hunting dog, how come he don’t treat him right?” I ask.

“How you know he don’t?”

“Way the dog acts. Scared to pee, almost,” I say.

Ma gives me a look.

“Don’t seem to me he’s got any marks on him,” Dad says, studying him from our window.

Don’t have to mark a dog to hurt him, I’m thinking. 

Now we are grounded in the story. 

We know that this is a story about a softhearted, backwoods boy who finds a dog that he thinks has been abused by its owner.
Seven pages into Shiloh - SEVEN PAGES, PEOPLE! - Naylor has completed the setup. 

Now the reader can move forward into the story armed with all the necessary information.

Class dismissed.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

It was a setup (Part 2)

Today I continue in my teachy-preachy mode - discussing setup.

If you missed Part 1, please go now and reread. It will be on the

To recap:

The setup answers the following questions:
  • Who are the main characters?
  • Where does the story take place?
  • When does the story take place?
  • And the most important question of all: What is the story about?

To continue examining examples (um, can a preachy teacher say that? I don't think so) let’s take a look at Holes by Louis Sachar (edited, by the way, by my editor, Frances Foster).

The book opens like this:

There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. There once was a very large

lake here, the largest lake in Texas. That was over a hundred years ago. Now it is just a dry, flat wasteland.

There used to be a town of Green Lake as well. The town shriveled and dried up along with the lake, and the people who lived there.

During the summer the daytime temperature hovers around ninety-five degrees in the shade - if you can find any shade. There’s not much shade in a big dry lake.

Setting, setting, setting. Sachar jumps right into the story with the where

The reader is immediately drawn into a “dry, flat wasteland.” The image of a “shriveled and dried up” lake that is “ninety-five degrees in the shade - if you can find any” is front and center in this setup.

Let’s continue:

The only trees are two old oaks on the eastern edge of the “lake” A hammock is stretched between the two trees, and a log cabin stands behind that.

The campers are forbidden to lie in the hammock. It belongs to the Warden. The Warden owns the shade.

Sachar is starting to hook us right here in the setup. 

There is something not right about this camp. 

The reader is beginning to suspect that this is not a pleasant summer camp. 


One word: warden. There’s a warden at this camp. Not a counselor. Not a director. A warden.

The setup continues:

Out on the lake, rattlesnakes and scorpions find shade under rocks and in the holes dug by the campers.

Holes dug by the campers?

Camp Green Lake does not sound like a summer camp that kids would want to go. It does, however, sound like a summer camp that kids would want to read about. Sachar has definitely hooked the reader.

So far, we know where the story takes place and we are getting a strong suspicion that this is not a realistic story. It already has a bit of a “tall tale” aura to it - with a dried up lake and scorpions and a warden and campers digging holes.

The second chapter begins on the third page:

The reader is probably asking: Why would anyone go to Camp Green Lake?

Most campers weren’t given a choice. Camp Green Lake is a camp for bad boys.

If you take a bad boy and make him dig a hole every day in the hot sun, it will turn him into a good boy.

That was what some people thought.

Stanley Yelnats was given a choice. The judge said, “You may go to jail, or you may go to Camp Green Lake.”

Stanley was from a poor family. He had never been to camp before.

Now we know that Camp Green Lake is a camp “for bad boys” and that the main character is Stanley Yelnats. 

During the next few paragraphs, we learn that Stanley is on his way to Camp Green Lake because he was convicted of a crime. But we also learn:

Stanley was not a bad kid. He was innocent of the crime for which he was convicted. He’d just been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It was all because of his no-good-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather!

Sachar then goes on to explain the Yelnats family curse.

We know what Holes is about: A boy who has been sent to a camp for bad boys and who is the victim of a family curse.

But what about the when of the story? 

This is one of those stories that doesn’t really need a specific when

It is timeless. It could be current. It could be historical. It doesn’t really matter.

We are only five pages into the story - FIVE PAGES, PEOPLE! -  and the setup is complete. 

The reader is off and running.

Well done, Louis and Frances.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Year of Billy Miller

I'm not a book reviewer and I don't play one on TV....

.....but here's what I loved about The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes:


Henkes just NAILS the main character. It's almost as if he actually WAS a second-grade boy at some point in his life.

Oh, wait...

Anyway, a super lovable character in perfect kid-centered vignettes.

The book is divided into four parts: Teacher, Sal [sister], Papa and Mama, focusing on Billy's relationship with those characters.

Loved it.

Monday, July 15, 2013

It was a setup (Part 1)

Today I put on my teachy-preachy hat.

There! You've been warned. You may leave now, if you so choose.

One of the most critical parts of the structure of a book for children is the setup

What is setup?

The setup gives the reader all of the important basic information needed in order to become grounded in the story.

The setup answers the following questions:

  • Who are the main characters?
  • Where does the story take place?
  • When does the story take place?
  • And the most important question of all: What is the story about?
The setup will also reveal the genre of the book (e.g., fantasy, historical fiction, contemporary fiction), as well as the overall tone of the book (e.g., a humorous middle grade novel, a dark, edgy YA).

The setup should come as early as possible in your story. 

Repeat after me: 

The setup should come as early as possible in your story.

If you take too long to start - and complete - your setup, you run the risk of losing your reader from the get-go. Young readers want to know the who, where, when and what of a story quickly. They want to settle in and become invested in the story. They don’t want to have to keep reading page after page not knowing all the important basic information about the story.

A great example of a masterful setup is from Walk Two Moons by

Sharon Creech:

Gramps says that I am a country girl at heart, and that is true. I have lived most of my thirteen years in Bybanks, Kentucky, which is not much more than a caboodle of houses roosting in a green spot alongside the Ohio River.

We are two sentences into the story (TWO sentences) and we know that the main character is a thirteen-year-old “country girl” from Kentucky.

Just over a year ago, my father plucked me up like a weed and took me and all our belongings (no, that is not true - he did not bring the chestnut tree, the willow, the maple, the hayloft, or the swimming hole, which all belonged to me) and we drove three hundred miles straight north and stopped in front of a house in Euclid, Ohio.

Now we know that she has just moved from Kentucky to Ohio. 

In addition to telling us that the main character is a “country girl,” Creech now shows us:  he did not bring the chestnut tree, the willow, the maple, the hayloft, or the swimming hole, which all belonged to me.
Obviously, those things are important to her.

The next line of the story is dialogue that drives home the point yet again:

“No trees?” I said. “This is where we’re going to live?”

Two paragraphs into the story (TWO paragraphs) and look how much we know!

Let’s continue:

“No,” my father said. “This is Margaret’s house.”

The front door of the house opened and a lady with wild red hair stood there. I looked up and down the street. The houses were all jammed together like a row of birdhouses. In front of each house was a tiny square of grass, and in front of that was a thin gray sidewalk running alongside a gray road.

Now we know two more characters: father and Margaret.

We know that the main character does not know Margaret because she refers to her as “a lady.”

We know that main character does not care much for this location. The houses are "all jammed together" and there is only a “tiny square of grass” and there is a “thin gray sidewalk running alongside a gray road.” 

Notice how the choice of the words jammed, tiny and gray reveal a lot about how she perceives the setting.

The next line, which is dialogue, reinforces, once again, her love of all things country:

“Where’s the barn?” I asked. “The river? The swimming hole?”

"Oh, Sal," my father said. "Come on. There's Margaret."
We know that the main character’s name is Sal.

A few paragraphs later, we are introduced to another character:

I didn’t know it then, but that face belonged to Phoebe Winterbottom, a girl who had a powerful imagination, who would become my friend, and who would have many peculiar things happen to her.

In addition to giving us vital story information, Creech is also beginning to reel us in, especially with that word peculiar.

The second chapter (only four pages into the story - FOUR pages) jumps forward in time, but continues the setup:

It was after all the adventures of Phoebe that my grandparents came up with a plan to drive from Kentucky to Ohio, where they would pick me up, and then the three of us would drive two thousand miles west to Lewiston, Idaho.

Now we have two more characters, Sal’s grandparents.

We know that this is a contemporary story, since they are driving.

We can also assume it is summertime, since Sal is not in school.

Two paragraphs later, we learn that Sal’s mother is not in her life:

My father started chipping away at a plaster wall in the living room of our house in Bybanks shortly after my mother left us one April morning.

And two more paragraphs later:

I was only thirteen, and although I did have a way with maps, it was not really because of that skill that I was going, nor was it to see the “whole ding-dong country” that Gram and Gramps were going. The real reasons were buried beneath piles and piles of unsaid things.

Some of the real reasons were:
1. Gram and Gramps wanted to see Momma, who was resting peacefully in Lewiston, Idaho.
2. Gram and Gramps knew that I wanted to see Momma, but that I was afraid to.
3. Dad wanted to be alone with the red-headed Margaret Cadaver. 

He had already seen Momma, and he had not taken me.

Now we know what the story is about: Thirteen-year-old Sal is traveling to Idaho with her grandparents to see her mother, which she has reservations about.

We are only on page five - PAGE 5, PEOPLE!  - and we know the who, the where, the when and the what of Walk Two Moons

We are grounded in the story and ready to move forward to see what is going to happen.

You have just been set up by a master. 

A round of applause for Ms. Creech!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Things I Love Thursday

I love this painting by Clement H. Donshea, who painted for Coca Cola advertising.

When my son was a baby, he LOVED this painting, too. He wanted to look at it all the time and would laugh and laugh when he saw it.

Monday, July 8, 2013

I hear voices

There's nothing I love to read more than a distinctive writer's voice. 

Some writers have it.

Some writers don't.

I believe that writing can be good - even great - without a distinctive voice. A great story - a skillfully developed plot - perfect dialogue, well-drawn characters.

But the voice is what sets one author's writing apart from another's.

It's like the blindfold taste test - can you read a passage of unidentified writing and know who wrote it?

Maybe lots of writers could write the same story, but only a writer with a distinctive voice can write it THAT way - that particular way - that way that tells the reader - "This is clearly HER writing. I'd recognize it anywhere."

For me, distinctive voice usually involves rhythm and word choice. It also involves the ability to write about ordinary things in an extraordinary way, so that small things become more important. And last, distinctive voice is the ability to show the perfect emotion.

The writing voice I love most in the whole world belongs to
Cynthia Rylant. She can weave together concrete, detailed description with perfectly described emotion and the words just flow together so flawlessly. Like this from Missing May:

Whirligigs of Fire and Dreams, glistening coke bottles and
chocolate milk cartons to greet me. I was six years old and I had come home.

And she can drop in a heartbreak of a sentence when you least expect it:

May was gardening when she died.

Or this:

When May died, Ob came back to the trailer, got out of his good suit and into his regular clothes, then went and sat in the Chevy for the rest of the night.

Next up? Linda Urban. Ooolala....that distinctive voice. Linda's got the gift of making the ordinary extraordinary - and for nailing emotion.

From The Center of Everything:

Ruby is an underreactor, Lucy says. So they are yin and yang -
which are not the names of twin zoo pandas, like ruby thought at first, but two opposites that fit together.

Lucy is dramatic; Ruby is calm.

Lucy is impulsive; Ruby takes time to figure things out.

Ruby does what she is supposed to do, and Lucy? Well, "I count on you for balance," Lucy always says.

Which is why they are friends, Ruby thinks.

And which is why she hasn't told Lucy how out of balance she felt since Gigi died. Instead, Ruby pretended things were normal. That she was normal.

And it worked.


Until yesterday.

"We're supposed to be best friends!" Lucy had said. Yelled, really. Her eyes had been slits, her voice as loud as it had ever been on the Hungry Nation Youth Theater stage. "I tell you everything and you didn't tell me anything!"

Ruby's stomach hurts remembering what she had said back. "Mind like water."

"This is not a stupid pebble, Ruby Pepperdine! This is a meteor! You have hurled an enormous meteor into the lake of our friendship. You've caused a tsunami!" Lucy had balled her fists and dashed away, and Ruby was left bobbing stupidly in her wake.

Bobbing stupidly in her wake?  Really? Love that.

I don't own a copy of Hound Dog True. Why? Because I am lame, is the only reason I can think of. So...I can't offer up an example. But here's what you must do: Go immediately and get a copy of that book. Then immediately turn to the scene where Mattie is in the cloakroom (coatroom?) and a classmate steals money from backpacks and mispronounces the word ogre. OMG! I'm kicking myself for not writing that scene before Linda did. Dang! (But then, I couldn't write with her distinctive voice, of course.)

Ordinary turned to extraordinary.

Kirby Larson. Sigh...what can you say about Kirby's writing voice?
Here's a word that comes to mind: perky. I know, kind of a stupid word choice. Maybe lively? Upbeat? I'm sure there's a better word but I can't think of it. All I know is that her writing voice sings. You'll get my drift with the examples below, from Hattie Ever After:

I needed to find my own place in the world. My own true place. And something in me believed that place was connected to the working end of a pen, not a plow. And certainly not a polishing cloth!

And this - which I adore:

As I scrubbed, two voices whispered around me. Hattie Go spoke into my right ear: "Don't you see? This is your chance to do something Grand."

Hattie Stay buzzed in my left ear. "What about Charlie? What will he think if you move even farther away?"

"He'd want you to have that adventure," urged Hattie Go. "Want you to pursue your dreams."

"He wants you to marry him!" protested Hattie Stay.

"The Pacific Ocean!" sighed Hattie Go. "Think of it!"

See what I mean about lively? Hattie Stay and Hattie Go? (Not to mention those dialogue tags.)

Here's one more:

It was him, too, who'd given me Mr. Whiskers, that sassy old tomcat. I don't know how Charlie knew that that bundle of fur and purr was just what a lonely orphan girl needed, but he did.

What about Rita Williams-Garcia? Her writing voice is just pure personality. I've never had the good fortune to meet her, but I'm sure I would love her. Her personality JUMPS off her pages.  

Only she could write the following (from P.S. Be Eleven): 

"Delphine." The "Del" pulled down low and quick and the "phine"
had no choice but to follow like a shamed child.

I love this:

You put on a smile and say it again. "That's nice, Pa. Very nice," because none of Miss Merriam Webster's words will show up in time to save you. You remember how Mrs. Peterson forbade the use of the word very in book reports because very was fine for fourth graders, but too lazy for fifth graders. Yet here you are, getting ready to start the sixth grade using fourth-grade words. You can't help yourself and add another very. "Very, very nice, Papa."

And only the character of Big Ma could use words like ooga mooga and some-timey friend and a grand Negro spectacle.

Such personality! Rita! Call me! Let's do lunch.

Now who could talk about distinctive writing voice without
mentioning Kathi Appelt? Not me. Her voice is melodic, like a song. Only Kathi can write sentences like these (from The Underneath):

She sniffed the air. It was wrong, this place. The air was heavy with the scent of old bones, of fish and dried skins, skins that hung from the porch like a ragged curtain. Wrong was everywhere.

Who else could write that sentence: It was wrong, this place?

Who else could write: Wrong was everywhere?

Who else could write: Hatred, like sweat, coated his skin.

Or this: Glory, glory, the warm dry sun bounced onto his silver fur. It sank right in. He walked farther into its goldy beams.

 Goldy beams? Really? *fist bump, Kathi*

That book is just so full of bluey blues and greeny greens and piney woods. Lovely.

Sara Pennypacker has a super duper funny dang voice. She has a wonderful way of dropping little unrelated nuggets into a sentence or paragraph that provide a great glimpse into the main character (for instance, those ceiling snakes in the second example below). I also love the way she varies the length of her sentences - some long and run-on - some short and choppy.  

From Clementine:

While Margaret was looking under the bed for Mascara, I accidentally touched her lamp, which is a china poodle with an umbrella that Margaret calls a parasol because she is a show-off. Margaret turned around fast, but my hands jumped into my pockets even faster.


If they had a special class for gifted kids in art, I would definitely be in it. But they don't, which is also unfair - only for math and English. I am not so good at English, okay, fine. But this year I am in the gifted class for math. And here is the bad surprise - so far, no gifts.

I told Principal Rice about that problem when she got back from calming down Margaret's mother.

"So far, no gifts," I told her, extremely politely.

Principal Rice rolled her eyes to the ceiling then, like she was looking for something up there. Ceiling snakes maybe, just waiting to drip on you. That's what I used to be afraid of when I was little, anyway. Now I am not afraid of anything.

Okay, fine, I am afraid of pointy things.

[And notice that she didn't say the ceiling snakes were ready to DROP on you - she chose DRIP. Perfect. *fist bump, Sara*]

Since this blog post could become the longest in the history of the internet, I'll only add one more: Kerry Madden. What I love about Kerry's writing voice is her great word choices. A perfect word sprinkled here and there, like this from Jessie's Mountain:

No wonder I can't sleep, worrying over spiteful letters saying PAY

Don't you just love that word spiteful? 

Two-year-old Appelonia races straight into Louise's arms and starts crawling up her like a tree frog.

A tree frog? How perfect is that? 

Though I can't help but feel a sadness that she's throwing her life away marrying Mr. Pickle. Maybe I ought to sing "Single Girl, Married Girl," an old Carter Family song, to her today to get her to rethink her plans of disaster.

Plans of disaster? Love that.
The plum sky is filled with crystal stars.

Those words plum and crystal = perfect. 

In the end, it's Uncle Buddy who gives us the miracle we need. He does something so terrible, so generous, and so unexpected that nobody can believe it. He has himself a heart attack on a moonshine run somewhere over in East Tennessee. 

I love the combination of the words, terrible, generous and unexpected. (Okay, I have to do it here...*fist bump, Kerry*)

I could add lots more but then you will get tired of reading and click over to TMZ to find out what The Biebs is up to. So I'll stop here.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Things I Love Thursday

I love that I've had the opportunity to work with one of the best editors in the business.

Last year, for a surprise celebration honoring FSG editor Frances Foster, her authors were asked to write a short piece about what they have learned from her.

Here is what I wrote:

What I've Learned from Frances Foster
I've learned the difference between walking UP the sidewalk and walking DOWN the sidewalk.

I've learned not to panic when a letter from her begins with the words, "Brace yourself."

I've learned not to panic when a phone call begins with the words, "I have a little niggle."

I've learned to appreciate humility when I receive an email stating: "Thank you for reminding me how bad Fame and Glory really was before I got my mitts on it."

I tried to learn from her the proper use of ellipses, but I still don't get it.

I've learned patience, open-mindedness, tact, an appreciation for the creative process, and the importance of compromise.

And to quote the ending of some editorial correspondence I sent to her a few years ago, "As always, thanks for your insight, instinct, smarts, humor, respect, patience and safety-mindedness." (The latter being a reference to a BB gun scene that I initially thought was hilarious but was reminded by someone wiser that it was very unsafe.)

Thank you, Frances, for everything.

More about my lucky partnership HERE.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013


I've had a great time following all the goings-on from ALA in Chicago....

....which led me to reminiscing....

....which led me to THIS.