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1. Navigating a Debut Year: Private Life

cover profiles

I first ran this series five months after May B. hit the shelves. With Blue Birds releasing next week (!), it feels like the right time for me to revisit my Writer’s Manifesto — a list of things I’d like to focus on in my public, private, and writing life. 

This is not in any way meant to be preachy or condemning (please notice I’m directing all of this to myself). I have yet to figure everything out and am in many ways a pro at doing the exact opposite of what I know is best. Yet these are ideas I’ve circled back to again and again, things I know will ultimately benefit my career, my friendships, my writing and my life. I’d love to hear your thoughts below.

In my private life I will…
  • Err on the side of love: I got this beautiful quote from author Irene Latham, who first heard it from her mama. It’s a good way to think about the world in general and is especially important in our small community. Assume the best of others, their intentions, their actions. It will make you happier and kinder, too.
  • Let go of what I can’t control: This is pretty much everything from how my work is received by professional reviewers, bloggers, readers, and friends to sales, publicity, and marketing efforts outside my hands. I can do what I can, and that is all. It isn’t right or fair to try to own things that aren’t mine and never will be.
  • Be real with other authors in a safe, closed community: I’ve talked a lot about the Class of 2k12 and The Apocalypsies around here. Though both function as promotional groups for debut authors, they are first and foremost a place I can go for support. The debut year is full of new experiences only other debuts can truly appreciate and understand. Knowing I can go to these stellar people with anything has helped bolster and encourage me.
In my private life I won’t…
  • Hold my colleagues to unspoken expectations: This one is easy to do without even realizing it — trusting a colleague will read my book as I have read hers, assuming someone else will talk up my titles as I have for him, believing another should comment on my blog as much as I do on hers and on and on. Insisting others are beholden to me because of what I’ve done for them is a sure formula for heartache, especially when those friends have no idea of my expectations. Maybe they haven’t read my book yet but still plan to. Maybe they have, and out of an attempt to be courteous haven’t mentioned it because it wasn’t their thing. Maybe they’re not interested in it at all. Ultimately, it’s none of my business and becomes another opportunity to err on the side of love.
  • Compare or begrudge the successes, sales, or careers of others: About six months ago, there were a number of posts in the blogosphere about envy and contentment. There was tremendous response from readers confessing similar feelings. The drive to compare is such a gut-level thing it’s sometimes hard to avoid. Some people are able to use comparison as a sort of motivation for their own work. Not so with me. Comparison leads to frustration and feelings of inadequacy…or feelings of superiority, neither of which benefits me. My friends’ successes don’t somehow negatively reflect on my own efforts. There is room for all of us. Just because my career will unfold differently from someone else’s doesn’t make it wrong and doesn’t give me the right to be bitter with others’ success.

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2. Navigating a Debut Year: Public Life

                           All Over But the Shoutin' Wildflowers from Winter: A Novel A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar Circle of Secrets A Kingdom Strange: The Brief and Tragic History of the Lost Colony of Roanoke

I first ran this series five months after May B. hit the shelves. With Blue Birds releasing next week (!), it feels like the right time for me to revisit my Writer’s Manifesto — a list of things I’d like to focus on in my public, private, and writing life. 

This is not in any way meant to be preachy or condemning (please notice I’m directing all of this to myself). I have yet to figure everything out and am in many ways a pro at doing the exact opposite of what I know is best. Yet these are ideas I’ve circled back to again and again, things I know will ultimately benefit my career, my friendships, my writing and my life. I’d love to hear your thoughts below.

In my public life I will…
  • Be generous: In my interactions with others and in the way I conduct myself, I’d love to be known as generous. This doesn’t mean committing to every opportunity or request that comes. It means being warm, friendly, and supportive of the writing community and the publishers, teachers, librarians, booksellers and readers who make it all happen.
  • Speak well of fellow writers: Whether I know them personally or not. Whether I like their work or not. These people are my people. This is enough of a reason to speak kindly or not at all.
  • Conduct myself in a becoming way: While I can’t control what others think of me (more on that below), I can choose to present myself in a way I’m proud of, whether that be in person or through social media. I am in no way perfect, believe me, but I strive not to embarrass myself, the children I write for, or the people who publish my writing.
In my public life I won’t…
  • Add to or perpetuate gossip: In just these few months as a debut, I’ve already heard things about fellow authors that have broken my heart. Whether shared maliciously, as some sort of cautionary tale, or just for fun, it’s been more than I need to know. I refuse to participate in keeping the stories going, and I will ask you not share whatever it is you’ve heard about others with me.
  • Disparage others’ books, genres, or talents but will find value in what they create: For much of my life, I’ve been a self-proclaimed book snob. Many writers talk of becoming more and more critical as readers the longer they write. For me, some sort of weird opposite has happened. Because I know first hand of the hard work the writing life demands, I’m learning to appreciate books, topics, and styles I would have ignored years ago. The books I don’t connect with aren’t really my concern: they weren’t written for me. There is an audience for them somewhere.

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3. Free Online Laura Ingalls Wilder Course: Part 2

2015-02-16 10.57.51Author, teacher, and editor Pamela Smith Hill will begin the second part of Missouri State University’s Laura Ingalls Wilder course on April 6, 2015. The course runs for eight weeks and will cover the second half of Wilder’s Little House series, starting with By the Shores of Silver Lake as well as the second half of Hill’s Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life. Wilder’s recently released autobiography, Pioneer Girl, (edited by Hill) is recommended reading.

If you weren’t part of the 7,000 students who participated in the first course, no matter! Anyone can sign up. Click through to enroll.

 

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4. Straight From the Source: Janet Fox on Writing Historical Fiction

Janet Fox writes award-winning fiction and non-fiction for children of all ages. Her 2010 young adult debut novel, FAITHFUL, was an Amelia Bloomer List pick, and was followed in 2011 by a companion novel, FORGIVEN, a Junior Library Guild selection and WILLA Literary Award Finalist. Her newest YA novel, SIRENS launched in November 2012; the Kirkus reviewer said in part, “SIRENS is a celebration of girl power, sisterhood, and hope for the future.” Janet is a 2010 graduate of the MFA/Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and a former high school English teacher. Janet and her family live in Bozeman, Montana, where they enjoy the mountain vistas.

What typically comes first for you: a character? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?

Most of my stories begin with a scene, but it’s more like a dream sequence. I often have no idea what’s going on in the scene and who the characters are, but if it resonates at a deep level, has some meaning for me that I can’t – yet – put into words, then that becomes my mission: put this emotion into words. For example, the opening scene of SIRENS was also the first thing that came to me as I began thinking about the book, and that image of a wharf over the Hudson River at night was important but I had no idea why Jo was throwing medals into the water or why she was there, or even who she really was. Water, of course, became a motif, and Jo’s gesture was a metaphor for her to let go of the past.

As soon as I decide to go forward from my key scene, I focus on the character. I spend a lot of time thinking about my protagonist and my antagonist, although I do so very organically, because a great deal of what I learn comes through the drafting, since I’m a pantser. I write a lot of stuff that changes or goes away but that helps me discover who my character is and what she needs. My protagonist – her attitudes, behavior, dreams, desires – always drives my stories, not the other way around. When I write historical fiction it doesn’t change the fact that readers want stories that help them reach into their buried dreams, and they do that by identifying with the character.

What kinds of sources do you use? 

I use a number of sources, everything from primary on. I read novels written in the period because they tend to mimic the voice of their era, and contain details that I can use. I look for period costumes in pattern books and magazines of the times – which often reveal nice details like “hunting costumes” or the layers of undergarments. I do visit museums for visuals. And I try to find anything that will add nuance to the era I write about. In SIRENS, which is set in the 1920s, I wanted more than the usual flapper/gangster/Prohibition stuff, and while listening to the radio one night, I heard a discussion about the Spiritualism movement of the 1920s, and thought “that’s it.”

But my favorite resource, depending upon the era, is period newspapers. They are available on line, and I love perusing the society column and the ads, in particular. From those I can harvest a feeling for what people were dreaming about – what they wanted, aspired to acquire, and how much that might cost. And how the “society” behaved, which the lower classes might desire to emulate, or rebel against. Again, it comes down to individual desires and dreams.

At what point do you feel comfortable beginning to draft? How does your research continue once you begin writing?

I draft almost right away, because I start with that dream and character. I research as I go. That’s because I’m usually too impatient to start the story-telling to do research first! So I’ll write until I reach a point where I need to answer a question, like “what was the flu pandemic like?” or “what was happening in Chinatown then?” And then I’ll research, which is easy in this internet era. Other details – the sensory stuff that comes from place – I’ll either tap from memory and experience, or go to that place and soak it up. Or watch videos or comb through photographs, since I’m a very visual person.

I never spend much time researching in advance, because the story comes to me way before I know where and when to place it.

What’s your favorite thing about writing historical fiction?

I do love history. It was my favorite subject in high school. I like the echoes and resonant desires, I like especially the somewhat mythic historic elements – things like Robin Hood, or the Roman conquest, or the western expansion in America. I like taking history and turning over the rocks to discover the personal and small within historical times. I love the idea of having a character hear a famous speech or witness an historical event, and then interpret it at the scale of an individual lifetime.

Has your research ever affected the overall thrust of your book? How so?

Always, but in unexpected fashion. In researching FAITHFUL, I learned that in the early 1900s there were still highway robberies taking place in Yellowstone Park, and tourists were relieved of their possessions, but thought this was highly romantic and exciting, so I worked that experience into the novel – and it became crucial to both FAITHFUL and FORGIVEN. In researching FORGIVEN I learned of the importing of young – very young – Chinese girls who were sold into terrible slavery in San Francisco, and this became my protagonist’s larger goal, to free some of these girls. So while I have my core emotion and my character’s desire up front, I often find historical details that will bolster the story in unexpected ways.

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Why is historical fiction important?

That old adage about being condemned to repeat the things we don’t learn the first time is true, and there are lots of historical moments I wouldn’t care to repeat. Historical fiction makes history more accessible, especially to young people. It personalizes history, and sheds a different spotlight on details, and can bring into focus comparisons between today’s events and historical events. Plus, well-written historical fiction is just plain fun to read.

 

 

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5. On Writing Historical Fiction

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My beat may lie in another time, but my approach is that of a reporter, trying for a scoop, looking for clues, connecting facts, digging under the surface. . . . History is full of gossip; it’s real people and emotion. — Jean Fritz

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6. Writing Links

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The Habits of Highly Effective Writers :: Chronicle

A Fan Letter to Readers :: Emu’s Debuts

It’s Okay to Write Terrible Stories by Julie Falatko :: The Nerdy Book Club

Picture Book Secrets :: Underdown

Familiarity Breeds Content :: Avi

On Writing :: Linda Urban

Writing Fast or Writing Slow: Which is Better? :: Kristi Holl

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7. Classroom Connections: THE WAY TO STAY IN DESTINY by Augusta Scattergood

Augusta scattergood

age range: 8-12

setting: Florida, 1974

visit Augusta Scattergood’s website

The cast of lively characters, including spunky and tough Anabel who befriends Theo, come to life under author Scattergood’s talented hand. A heartwarming story of friendship, family, and finding one’s place in the world despite hardship and heartache.   – School Library Journal

Please tell us about your book.

THE WAY TO STAY IN DESTINY, my second middle-grade novel, was recently published by Scholastic Press. It’s the story of a boy named Theo who’s forced to move to a little town called Destiny, Florida, with an uncle he doesn’t really know. Theo’s a resourceful, talented boy. His uncle’s an unhappy Vietnam veteran who doesn’t know how to raise a kid. But there’s a bright ray of sunshine in their new life together— Miss Sister Grandersole, dancer, advisor, and owner of the Rest Easy Rooming House and Dance Studio, where they fortunately have landed.

What inspired you to write this story?

We had recently moved to Florida and I was feeling a little like Theo! Where am I? Why are all these lizards in my garden? Also, as a child, I had some remarkable dance and piano teachers. Not always remarkable in their ability to teach—though some were extremely talented!—but certainly interesting characters. Once I convinced my critique group and my early readers that “Sister” was not a retired nun wearing red tap shoes, Miss Sister Grandersole was the most fun character to write. I guess you could say I was inspired by memories and moving.

Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching? 

My new book doesn’t focus on one truly important historical event like Freedom Summer, the backbone for my first novel, GLORY BE. The aftermath of the Vietnam conflict plays into the story, and there were details from that time that I wanted to get right. I used veterans’ sites to read of others’ experiences coming back from Vietnam. And I consulted my friends who had served.

I also verified all the baseball facts, but that part was easy. I loved reading about Hank Aaron’s journey. Because of his career milestones, THE WAY TO STAY IN DESTINY is set in 1974. Sometimes that seemed so recent, I had trouble remembering that made it historical fiction!

The hardest part of writing for me is that first draft. I struggle. A lot. But I love the revision process. Generally, I try to break it down and not tackle too many things at once. I’ll revise first for plot and character arcs. Then I’ll get to the fun part, making the language and the dialog read in a way I hope enriches the story.

I could go on and on, but I don’t want to make new writers think it’s not fun to write a book. Even on the days that nothing seems to work, writing really is more than hard, gut-wrenching work. It’s often a joy.

What are some special challenges associated with writing historical fiction?

Make the story sing and make the plot move quickly! Of course, these are challenges all writing presents, no matter the genre.

When creating historical fiction, it’s tempting to dump all the important facts into readers’ laps. But the smallest details like skate keys and 45s (those are musical recordings, for those of you too young to remember!) and anti-war buttons on knapsacks really bring the time period alive.

What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?

Quite truthfully, the story behind THE WAY TO STAY IN DESTINY is timeless. A boy finds himself an outsider in a totally new place, meets someone who’s been there forever, makes a friend. Theo’s a kid who’s resilient, in the worst of situations. The post-Vietnam time period, the uncle who can’t quite get past his wartime experiences, families that were split apart by strong feelings during the Vietnam conflict should offer teachers an opportunity to discuss so many things. Perhaps even a few things not too often found in middle-grade novels.

But at heart, THE WAY TO STAY IN DESTINY is really about discovering family, not only the family you are born into, but the family of your heart. Those are the people who come into your life when you most need them.

The post Classroom Connections: THE WAY TO STAY IN DESTINY by Augusta Scattergood appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.

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8. Dyslexia and MAY B.

This weekend I’m speaking at the Southwest Branch of the International Dyslexia Association. I’m amazed that three years later, my book is still connecting with readers — especially young people with learning disabilities.

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Here’s an interview I did a few months ago that ran in the SWIDA newsletter:

What inspired you to choose a girl with dyslexia as your main character?

In order for a book to work, an author must not give their characters what they want (at least not straight away), but must make them face their fears and weaknesses. Without these things, there is no change. Without change, there is no story.

May’s name came to me before her story did. I liked the way May Betterly could become May B. and how “maybe” could speak to her perception of herself (maybe is such a wishy-washy word. It makes me think of mediocre or so-so). I knew early on that May wanted to be a teacher, and decided the most direct way to challenge her would be to make this dream virtually impossible. Pulling her out of school and giving her dyslexia (in an era where this would have been completely misunderstood) fit the bill.

What special challenges did this choice create?

The first is obvious: I am not an expert on dyslexia in the least. At first, I wasn’t sure exactly what her challenge was — anxiety? Fear? A learning disability? Because the book doesn’t spell out exactly what is going on, I thought I could get by with not addressing things: If May and her teachers didn’t know, why would we, as readers, need to?

My editor wasn’t impressed with my line of thinking. She told me (and rightly so!) that if I left readers hanging, they’d feel frustrated. She suggested I weave more clues that pointed toward dyslexia in the text and that I define May’s disability in the author’s note.

This terrified me. I was sure as soon as I used a technical word I’d be claiming some sort of expertise. The more I researched, though, the more I was reminded that dyslexia is not a one-size-fits-all struggle. I tried to convey in the author’s note general similarities those with dyslexia commonly share (issues with fluency, word recognition, and comprehension; the omission of words and anxiety stemming from reading aloud, for example) and techniques that some find helpful (repetition, reading in unison with one or more people). I also had a writing friend who is a literacy expert read the manuscript.

More than once a person has asked me on what authority I’ve written this book. I’ve come to the conclusion I am qualified to tell May’s story because it is one of identity and self-worth — something all of us must face at some point, something that becomes very real to young people as they become aware of their place in this world.

Before you were a writer, you were a classroom teacher. How did working with students with reading disabilities shape your perspective of May B.?

I’m going to turn this question on its head a little. It wasn’t working with students with reading disabilities that shaped my perspective so much as examining my own time in the classroom — my attitudes, my efforts, and if I’m honest, my shortcomings. In forcing myself to sit with this character and her two very different teachers, I found myself reflecting again and again on my teaching. What I learned wasn’t always attractive. It’s easy to love the hard worker, the kid who wants to do well. It’s not so easy to get behind the child who isn’t as winsome. I have to confess there are kids I put more effort into because I enjoyed them more. There are others I didn’t try as hard with, sometimes because I wasn’t qualified, sometimes because I didn’t fully understand their needs. And sometimes I didn’t put as much work in because I didn’t want to.

If I was going to tell the most honest story I could, I couldn’t hide from these unattractive qualities I found in myself. Instead, I needed to mine them to make the story real, to make it work.

Do you have any words of wisdom you would like to offer students with dyslexia?

I hesitate when taking about the traditional ideas behind character development — the need for flaws and weakness — when talking about May Betterly. I don’t ever want children who have learning disabilities to see themselves as flawed or weak. It was very important to me that May not be “cured” of her dyslexia, first, because it’s an untrue way to look at disability, and second because it sends a damaging message, one that says you are only whole without disability.

Part of my reason in writing the book was to examine the concept of worth — how so often who we are becomes based on what others tell us about ourselves or on what we’re able to do. Like May, I think all of us in some way feel we don’t measure up. Struggles, like dyslexia, don’t define us. They are not shameful. They might be seen as “character flaws” in a book (ways a character is made real and relatable), but such real-life struggles never, ever make a person somehow worth less.

Last year I got an email that thanked me for writing May B. It directed me to a blog post that literally took my breath away:

At the end of May B., I am crying. I am crying at the ways she is so strong and capable.

…I feel like Caroline Starr Rose wrote this book in part for me.

It was as if she were writing to encourage me on behalf of all my teachers in and outside of the classroom who for years didn’t see that all the misspelled words and run-ons as a red flag. It was as if she were writing right into the places of my heart where those accusations of being careless and not good enough had settled. And she whispered that like May, I could overcome. I could hope for the good things even when they are hard. Thank you, Caroline. Thank you, May.

I hope readers of all sorts will be able to relate to — and find confidence and courage in — May’s story.

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9. Mid-Grade Authors Love Teachers – A Giveaway

mg giveaway1The lovely Lynda Mullaly Hunt, whose newest novel, FISH IN A TREE, released last week, has arranged a spectacular giveaway. One lucky teacher will win all sixteen middle-grade titles you see here. All books will be autographed, too.

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To enter, leave a comment below or on Lynda’s blog. OR tweet about the giveaway, using the hashtag #MGAuthorsLoveTeachers. It’s that easy! The contest closes 11:59 on Wednesday, 2/18. The winner will be announced Thursday, 2/19. Stop by here for the young adult giveaway.

Good luck! And thank you, teachers, for the way you love middle-grade books and authors. We love you right back.

 

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10. Fast Five: Books I Read with Babes in Arms

books with babies

It feels like forever since I’ve run a Fast Five post! So long, perhaps I need to explain myself again. Fast Fives are books thematically grouped together. Here are some that still get plenty of views:

Today’s Fast Five books are ones I devoured with infants at home. Those early days, I wasn’t good for much other than baby care and reading (how perfect is it that feeding a baby fits so nicely with cruising through a book?). My boys are middle schoolers now, but these five books continue to be favorites:

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster — Jon Krakauer:

I’d seen the IMAX movie about the 1996 climb where eight people had lost their lives and was fascinated. Survival stories have long been a favorite (I wonder if this read subconsciously influenced that little survival story I later wrote?), and I was GLUED to this book. I’ve gone on to read Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Under the Banner of Heaven. He could write about anything, and I’d be hooked.

Possession — A. S. Byatt:

The first time I saw this book I was a freshman in college, but didn’t read it until years later when I found it in a used bookstore. Possession now ties for first place (with The Count of Monte Cristo ) as my favorite book of all time. There’s poetry! Romance! Mystery! History! Dual story lines that weave in and out of one another! A ticking clock! And overall there is spectacular, spectacular writing.

The Name of the Rose — Umberto Eco:

My freshman year at Hendrix College, my History of Christianity professor showed us the movie version of The Name of the Rose. This is the only Eco novel I’ve ever read (something I must remedy someday). It’s monks, middle-ages, and mystery — super engrossing. A great read.

Anna and the King of Siam — Margaret Landon:

This is the book The King and I musical was based on. I’ve had a life-long crush on Yul Brynner (don’t laugh) and had recently seen Anna and the King, a 1999 movie based on the same true story of British school teacher Anna Leonowens‘s experiences teaching in the court of Siamese King Mongkut. While the book has been criticized for some cultural inaccuracies, the story is a true adventure.

The Memoirs of Cleopatra — Margaret George:

Margaret George is a master. As a historical novelist, I’ve learned it’s vital to make sense of a character’s actions and motivations as they unfold alongside true history. Margaret George has this down pat. One of the things that continues to stick out for me is George’s ability to make the Egyptian / Roman battles come alive. And then there’s the Julius Caesar and Mark Antony romances. Goodness all around.

* Notice Possession made this list, too!

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11. A Bride Married to Amazement

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When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

— from “When Death Comes” by Mary Oliver New and Selected Poems, Volume 1

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12. 5 Ways I’m Learning to Write Smart, Not Scared

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It is good to work. Work with love and think of liking it when you do it. It is easy and interesting. It is a privilege. There is nothing hard about it but your anxious vanity and fear of failure.

And when you work on your writing remember these things. Work will all your intelligence and love. Work freely and rollickingly as though talking to a friend who loves you. Mentally thumb your nose at the know-it-alls, jeerers, critics, doubters.

— Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write

I’m declaring 2015 the year of writing smart and not scared. What do I mean?

For one, I want to approach my writing with intelligence and love. I want to work freely and rollickingly (is there a better, more joyful word to describe doing the things we love to do?). In other words, I want to be a whole lot more like Brenda Ueland.

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Here’s my game plan:

1. I want to be aware of the work beneath the work. Am I involved in frantic wheel spinning because I feel I need to produce something? What’s my motivation behind my need to be busy? More often than not, I’m  learning it’s fear.

2. I want to be proactive instead of reactive. Sometimes the writing life means there is nothing new to show, but important work has been done nonetheless. (I’m thinking of all the behind-the-scenes work that never, ever is efficient and sometimes feels like wasted time.) I want to learn to be more comfortable with what’s best for the work. And I want to think through what this means for each project (ideally ahead of time) so I’m not just putting out fires, but really benefiting the writing (and my learning, too).

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3. I want my work, even when it’s hard, to bring about joy and satisfaction. Sorry, Brenda. I do believe it’s hard. But I still want the rollicking! I’m living my dream. There is so much to love: The freedom to experiment and play. The chance to write stuff that only I’ll ever see; to make things that might interest no one else, but will satisfy me. The room to try things that feel extra niche-y. The opportunity to pursue these things because the work feels like talking to a friend who loves me.

4. I will not be afraid of anxious vanity. I’m one to stress and worry about life in general. And this seeps into my writing life a lot. (I’m really awful when it comes to number 21 on this list.) I’m an all-out pro when it comes to worrying that I can’t write another book. I find it hard to give my work the space to grow from its fragile, junky beginnings, trusting it will one day be able to stand on its own. It’s way too easy to compare fledging drafts to finished books. That isn’t fair to the new work or to my creative process.

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5. I will learn to mentally thumb my nose at the jeerers, critics, and doubters. Blue Birds has gotten some lovely reviews. You want to know something ridiculous? Those reviews have stressed me out, knocked me off my center. I hear waiting for reviews to roll in never gets easier, but here’s the thing: Reviews aren’t written for authors — never have been, never will be. Whether reviews are good or bad, I am proud of this book. My editor is proud of this book. This is enough.

There are so many ways to be thrown off your rails, as my dear friend Beth Kephart says. (And she’s had plenty of reason to feel off balance of late). What matters isn’t the externals,
but the number of times we actually stepped outside of ourselves and lived bright, thought big, made connections, reached over the fence toward another.

Anyone else want to learn to write this way?

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13. Wisdom from TUCK EVERLASTING

Don’t be afraid of death; be afraid of an unlived life.”
(TUCK celebrates its 40th anniversary this year)

 

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14. A Behind the Scenes Glimpse into WETLANDS

You might have noticed this lovely over in the sidebar.

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This dear book comes into the world July 14, in the midst of hurricane season. While it isn’t a Katrina book, it is a Louisiana hurricane story, and its release before Katrina’s tenth anniversary feels just right.

A few months ago, illustrator Rob Dunlavey shared this wonderful mini-documentary about his process with OVER IN THE WETLANDS. I’d love if you took a few minutes to listen to what he has to say as he goes about his work.

Rob’s thoughts on process (don’t be afraid to screw up; art is boxing rather than rocket science, you just have to keep sparring and discovering what you want to say) and purpose (art changes the way you see the world; it’s about zeroing in, magnifying and feeling the joy; art exists to enhance living) speak to me as a writer. The purpose and drive behind the creative life really is familiar across the board.

 

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15. Why We Read

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[D]on’t ever apologize to an author for buying something in paperback, or taking it out from a library (that’s what they’re there for. Use your library). Don’t apologize to this author for buying books second hand, or getting them from bookcrossing or borrowing a friend’s copy. What’s important to me is that people read the books and enjoy them, and that, at some point in there, the book was bought by someone. And that people who like things, tell other people. The most important thing is that people read…
—Neil Gaiman

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16. Straight From the Source: Dianne K. Salerni on Writing Historical Fiction

DIANNE K. SALERNI, a former fifth grade teacher, is the author of young adult historical novels, We Hear the Dead (Sourcebooks) and The Caged Graves (Clarion/HMH), and the middle-grade fantasy series, The Eighth Day (HarperCollins). In her spare time, Dianne is prone to hanging around creepy cemeteries and climbing 2000 year-old pyramids in the name of book research.

What typically comes first for you: a character? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?

The premise of the story comes first, and that usually dictates the time period. When I decided to write about the Fox sisters, their séance fraud, and Maggie Fox’s romance with Elisha Kane, I had to follow the timeline of their true story. When I decided to write about the caged graves in Catawissa, Pennsylvania, I could have changed the time period, but I thought it was better to work with the actual dates of death on the headstones. When I began working on a project that involved Nikola Tesla, I obviously had to work within the span of his life.

Having determined the time period of each story, my first step is to research the subject (ie: biographies of Maggie Fox, Elisha Kane, Nikola Tesla), the setting (ie: the history of Catawissa), and when possible, read other books set within the same time period.

What kinds of sources do you use? 

I do a lot of my research online and depend on historical society websites, historic photographs, census information, and even online copies of old magazines, such as Godey’s Ladies Book. Who scans all this information and puts it online, I don’t know, but I owe them a debt of gratitude!

I also purchase books when appropriate, especially biographies and books on local history. If a historical character in my story has written a book (such as Elisha Kane’s Arctic Explorations) I may read that. I also have a few reference books on hand in my house, such as a giant dictionary of slang (which helps me date slang accurately for historical use) or The Writer’s Guide to Every Day Life in the 1800s.

On occasion, I’ll visit a location related to my book or a scene in the book, such as a cemetery, a town, a coal mine, or in one case, a pyramid in Mexico! (Did you know traveling for book research is tax deductible?!)

At what point do you feel comfortable beginning to draft? How does your research continue once you begin writing?

I begin writing when the opening of the story reveals itself to me and I have enough plot ideas to move forward from there. Although I usually sketch out a basic outline for a plot before beginning the story, I rarely stick to it. For me, the true story develops along the way, and it’s often not exactly what I planned it to be.

I will continue to research as things come up during the writing. (ie: What town was accessible to the main character’s home by train in a single day? Were cupcakes invented by the 1860s? How did someone acquire decorative plants in the days before florists and nurseries?)

What’s your favorite thing about writing historical fiction?

I love learning about the details of life and marveling at what people could do then that we can’t do now. Yes, that may be the opposite of what one expects – Can’t we do more now? – but the people of the past had many more skills than we do. We are specialized and rely on our technology. We need to know less, because we can always look something up or find somebody else who knows what we need. (People don’t even bother to memorize phone numbers anymore!)

I also love portraying people in historical time periods as very much the same as people today. For example, when one of my characters, Verity, becomes engaged to a young man she knows only through letters, it’s a lot like today’s online dating. When she finally meets him, she’s expecting insta-love, and when that doesn’t happen, it’s a disappointment to her.

What are some obstacles writing historical fiction brings?

If I had a penny for every time an editor passed on a manuscript, saying, “Historical fiction is a hard sell” … well, I’d have a lot of pennies.

I wish so many readers (especially YA readers) didn’t automatically write off historical fiction. History is a setting like any other – contemporary, dystopian, fantasy, or science fiction. Where and when the action takes place helps shapes the story, of course, but why historical settings would be considered less appealing than others puzzles me!

Because life isn’t always clear cut, the motives behind our actions don’t always make sense. But stories need to follow a logical path. What sorts of decisions have you had to make about “muddy” historical figures or events in order for your book to work?

This definitely came up a number of times when I was writing the story of the Fox sisters. They did what the historical record says they did, and I had to work with that. I had to provide the motivation behind their actions, even when those actions didn’t make sense. I believed the girls were frauds, but I had to work with witness accounts of their eerily accurate séances. Elisha Kane disappointed Maggie Fox repeatedly, but she always took him back. Why?

In the end, I had to remember that people in the past were not very different than people today. Witnesses lie. Girls believe their lovers will change, that this time, things will be different. When faced with a conundrum in history, I almost always found that human faults and frailties provided the solution for me. Because people aren’t logical or perfect.

Why is historical fiction important?

For exactly the reasons I stated above! People in the past were the same as people today. It’s important for us to understand that there’s nothing new under the sun – even if we think there is! Online dating and long-distance romance? Not new. Boyfriends who won’t commit and businesses that defraud the customers? Not new.

We need historical fiction in order to be less self-centered, to remind ourselves that people who came before us led lives as rich and interesting as our own – as will the people who come after us.

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17. Reset Expectations

birdsinatreeReset expectations instead of raising them. Hard to do if you’re a public company, but probably worth considering if you’re a human intent on making your art.

— from Seth Godin’s blog post, the paradox of rising expectations

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18. Classroom Connections: UNDER A PAINTED SKY by Stacey Lee

age range: 12 and up
setting: Missouri en route to California, 1849
Stacey Lee’s website

High drama, tension, romantic longings, and touches of humor will entice historical fiction fans, and will be a perfect tie-in to social studies curriculum.
— School Library Journal

Please tell us about your book.

Missouri, 1849: Samantha dreams of moving back to New York to be a professional musician—not an easy thing if you’re a girl, and harder still if you’re Chinese. But a tragic accident dashes any hopes of fulfilling her dream, and instead, leaves her fearing for her life. With the help of a runaway slave named Annamae, Samantha flees town for the unknown frontier. But life on the Oregon Trail is unsafe for two girls, so they disguise themselves as Sammy and Andy, two boys headed for the California gold rush.

Sammy and Andy forge a powerful bond as they each search for a link to their past, and struggle to avoid any unwanted attention. But when they cross paths with a band of cowboys, the light-hearted troupe turn out to be unexpected allies. With the law closing in on them and new setbacks coming each day, the girls quickly learn that there are not many places to hide on the open trail.

An unforgettable story of friendship and sacrifice—perfect for fans of Code Name Verity.

What inspired you to write this story?

I’d always wondered what life in America was like when my ancestors arrived to California in the late 19th century. When I researched the history of Chinese in America, I learned that the bulk of the Chinese came during the western expansion and California Gold Rush. I don’t speak Chinese myself, so I knew my heroine needed to have a full command of the English language. The story grew from there.

Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching?

I’m not a historian, so for me, every book begins with a trip to the library. There are plenty of online resources as well, but I seem to learn better when reading a hard copy. Also, I find the Children’s section of the library to be invaluable for subjects I know nothing about. Children’s books and videos break down the material into easy to understand chunks, not to mention, they’re much more entertaining than the adult stuff.

What are some special challenges associated with writing historical fiction?

One challenge is understanding the geography of the area as it existed during a particular period in time. Cities can change a lot over a few years, and while I certainly believe in taking liberties, I like to know when I’m doing it. I’m starting quite a collection of antique maps and reproductions!

What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?

The Oregon Trail and western expansion, slavery, Chinese American history, and the California Gold Rush, and last but not least, cowboys.

 

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19. Wisdom from A GATHERING OF DAYS

a gathering of days

Once I would have wished for that: never to grow old. But now I know that to stay young always is also not to change. And that is what life’s all about — changes going on every minute, and you never know when something begins where it’s going to take you.

So one thing I want to say about life is don’t be scared and don’t hang back, and most of all, don’t waste it.

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20. Lucky Duck

You might have noticed the pretty new cover over in the sidebar.

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Last fall I was asked to write a few poems on spec for a new poetry anthology Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong had in the works. Last month I found out one had been accepted, a poem called “December Solstice.”

Sylvia and Janet are the superstars behind the Poetry Friday Anthology series, books that have been adopted by hundreds of school districts across the country. The series “helps teachers and librarians teach poetry easily while meeting the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and the Texas TEKS for English Language Arts (ELA)/Poetry and Science & Technology.”

This anthology, The Poetry Friday Anthology for Celebrations, releases in April, also known as National Poetry Month. For more information, click through!

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21. Celebrating BLUE BIRDS: A Week-Long Giveaway

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Blue Birds makes its way into the world two months from now. I am beyond excited to introduce you to my girls, Alis and Kimi, and hope they will come to mean to you what they do me.

During the next week over a dozen bloggers will celebrate Blue Birds. Some will post about friendship or cross-cultural experiences. Others will run interviews with me or will share a Blue Birds review. I’ll include all links on the blog, so that you might read along.

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As part of the celebration, I’m giving away a downloadable PDF of this beautiful Blue Birds quote (created by Annie Barnett of Be Small Studios) for anyone who pre-orders the book. If you’d like to participate, here’s all you need to do:

I will send out the PDF on Tuesday, January 20. This is yours to use as you choose. My copy is going on my bookshelf, and I’ve also had notecards made. I do ask that you not give away the PDF itself. This is an honor system sort of thing, and I’d like it to remain as a gift for those who pre-order. But feel free to print as many copies as you’d like. Imagine what a lovely gift the book and quote might be together!

Before getting published, I had no idea how much power pre-sales can have. Early numbers help a publisher decide how many books to print (what’s known as a print run), influence bookstores whether or not to carry a book, and can indicate how successful a book will be overall.

I would be honored if you spread the word about Blue Birds. Thank you, friends, for your support. A book needs readers, and I am so grateful for readers like you.

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22. A Pinch of Daring

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It wasn’t easy deciding what lines from Blue Birds would work as a visual taste of the book. When I flipped through it with Annie’s art in mind, I was sure I would settle on words about friendship. That’s the heart of the story, after all. But it was these words instead that I returned to again and again:

How ordinary life is
without a bit of fancy,
without a pinch of daring
to fill our days.

The funny thing is, I can’t say I wholly agree with my character Alis. Here’s a twelve-year-old girl with an adventurous side who is surrounded by newness at every turn. An ordinary life would be dull in comparison. But my forty-one year old self isn’t so convinced there is an ordinary life. I’m pretty sure every life is extra-ordinary.

Here’s where I do track with her. Those bit of fancy/pinch of daring moments are the glimmers that can make us feel most alive. They can be small, unassuming things or enormous, life-changing events. They are those times we feel most content, most joyous, most brave.

As I was driving home from my run last Thursday morning, I caught Malcolm Gladwell on NPR’s TED Radio Hour. I might be botching exactly what he said, but it went something like this:

You’re never most alive as when your world is turned upside down.

That’s what fiction is all about, those life-turned-asunder moments. They propel characters toward the change that has to happen for a story to exist. For those of us who live outside the world of books (you know, as living, breathing human beings), those upside down moments aren’t always pleasant. While I love the idea of a new year and all the fresh potential it brings, I’m also firmly aware of the equal possibility for sorrow and disappointment. And you know something? That’s scary. Life in its glorious ordinariness sometimes takes a measure of bravery.

I only just realized that Alis’s words kind of echo one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite characters, Francie Nolan from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Perhaps I subconsciously meant for it to be that way:

Let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry…have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me be sincere — be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.

 In the wonder and joy and even the sorrow, here’s to your own bits and pinches of the extraordinary. 

BB PDF pic for blog postsThis post is part of a week-long celebration in honor of  Blue Birds. I’m giving away a downloadable PDF of this beautiful Blue Birds quote (created by Annie Barnett of Be Small Studios) for anyone who pre-orders the book from January 12-19. Simply click through to order from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books A Million, IndieBound, or Powell’s, then email a copy of your receipt to caroline@carolinestarrrose.com by Monday, January 19.

Join the Celebration!

Childhood, Best Friends, and Blue Birds by Caroline Starr Rose :: Kimberley Griffiths Little

Blue Birds by Caroline Starr Rose :: Melissa Sarno

MG Book Review — Blue Birds :: Akossiwa Ketoglo

A Celebration of Caroline Starr Rose’s Blue Birds: We Were the Fortunate Strangers :: Valerie Stein

Celebrating Blue Birds with an Interview with Caroline Starr Rose :: Faith Hough

Roanoke Lost Colony Imagined in Blue Birds :: Pragmatic Mom

 

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23. The Childhood Friendships Behind BLUE BIRDS

Books grow from a lot of places. Blue Birds is firmly rooted in two of my childhood friendships.

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In 1980 I moved back to the US from Saudi Arabia at the ripe old age of six. I didn’t understand America, this place with “deer crossing signs” (weren’t those pictures of goats?) and weird playground slang. While living on the other side of the world, what had once been familiar was now strange. That’s when I met Sergio, my boy-next-door, playmate, classmate, sometimes sworn enemy, and stand-in sibling. Our friendship gave us a place to be ourselves, to grow into our fuller selves. It was a safe place for me to navigate my new surroundings and learn about my new home.

CSR and ACI

A few years later, I met Anna. We traded books, dreamed big dreams, were hugely creative and beyond silly. Anna moved away in fifth grade, and our mothers let us call each other twice a year — on our birthdays and Christmas. The rest of the time we wrote letters, hers filling up a blue suitcase I kept in my closet, mine filling up a red toolbox in hers. Since 1985, we’ve seen each other only five times. I still count Anna as one of my dearest friends.

How have your childhood friends influenced you? 

BB PDF pic for blog postsThis post is part of a week-long celebration in honor of  Blue Birds. I’m giving away a downloadable PDF of this beautiful Blue Birds quote (created by Annie Barnett of Be Small Studios) for anyone who pre-orders the book from January 12-19. Simply click through to order from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books A Million, IndieBound, or Powell’s, then email a copy of your receipt to caroline@carolinestarrrose.com by Monday, January 19.

Join the celebration!

Blue Birds by Caroline Starr Rose :: Kid Book List

Good Friends and Good Books: Blue Birds by Caroline Starr Rose :: Victoria Easter Wilson

Blue Birds by Caroline Starr Rose :: The Readers and Writers Paradise

Bravery in a Foreign Land: Celebrating Caroline Starr Rose’s Blue Birds :: Amy Rogers Hays

Blue Birds by Caroline Starr Rose :: Well Read Sleepy Head

Blue Birds, by Caroline Starr Rose, and an Unlikely Friendship :: Our House in the Middle of Our Street

 

 


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24. The Gift of Friendship

Today is the last day you can receive this beautiful print if you pre-order Blue Birds. Details below.

girls and pearls

My husband’s first pastorate out of seminary was in Northern Virginia, just outside Washington DC. He was a youth pastor and I was a teacher, and we were still pretty new to town. One Sunday a young couple visited our church. I casually chatted with them — a British fellow with the name Steve Martin (isn’t that fun?) and his lovely American wife, Jamie. And in those few moments I had one of those weird experiences I’d only had once before: I knew immediately that Jamie and I would become very good friends.

It was a strange feeling with no real basis, other than an underlining conviction we had clicked in a meaningful way. Almost fifteen years have passed since that Sunday. We’ve lived apart for eleven of them. But the fledgling friendship that started that day has been one of my life’s dearest gifts.

One spring Jamie came to visit us in Michigan. As the two of us wandered through an antique shop, she handed me a worn school primer she’d found on a shelf. Maybe it will be helpful for that new book idea you have, she said. It ended up being key. On the day May B. came into the world, Jamie wrote something that to this day makes me cry.

As I struggled with writing Blue Birds, Jamie was the one to tell me good work is often hard work. Each time I’d email about how difficult it all was, she’d remind me the writing was hard because it was important.

This time last year I was deep in the midst of second-round edits and desperate to connect with Alis and Kimi in a meaningful way. So I started wearing a strand of pearls. Everyday. With sweats and dressy clothes and everything in between. Unless I was sleeping or exercising, the pearls were there. My Blue Birds girls share a pearl necklace (you can see Alis wearing it on the cover). Wearing pearls was a constant reminder of their friendship, a way to meet them beyond my writing sessions, to carry them with me to the grocery store, while walking the dog, into life’s small, quiet moments.

It was during this time I found this treasure in my mailbox. A gift from Jamie (who knew nothing about the pearls). And that’s when I knew with certainty exactly who this book was for.

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If we’re lucky, we find friends in this world who love us as we are and bring out our best selves. I hope that’s what I’ve captured in Alis and Kimi’s relationship. It’s what Jamie Martin has given me.

BB PDF pic for blog postsThis post is part of a week-long celebration in honor of  Blue Birds. I’m giving away a downloadable PDF of this beautiful Blue Birds quote (created by Annie Barnett of Be Small Studios) for anyone who pre-orders the book from January 12-19. Simply click through to order from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books A Million, IndieBound, or Powell’s, then email a copy of your receipt to caroline@carolinestarrrose.com by Monday, January 19.

Join the Celebration!

An Interview with Caroline Starr Rose, author of Blue Birds :: From the Mixed Up Files…

What I’m Reading: Blue Birds by Caroline Starr Rose :: Views from a Window Seat

Blue Birds :: Augusta Scattergood

Blue Birds Interview with Caroline Starr Rose :: Reflections on the Teche

Book Review: Blue Birds by Caroline Starr Rose :: Book Covers

 

 

 

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25. Writing Links

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Le Mot Juste :: Avi

Reading the Archetypes: Another Look at Levels :: Nerdy Book Club

An Epic Post about the Submission Process, from an Agent’s POV :: Jennifer Represents…

The Craft of Writing: Selling on Proposal, AKA the Dreaded Synopsis by Gretchen McNeil :: Adventures in YA Publishing

Voices of Self-Sabotage :: Writer’s First Aid

Why Writers Are Often Blind to Their Own Faults :: Jody Hedlund

A new middle-grade blog focusing on historical fiction — Mad about MG History

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