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26. Reading About Writing, A Mid-Year Update

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I declared 2014 the year to learn about writing and committed to quite the list of non-fiction (which I only can read in small doses). How have I done so far? I’ve read a grand total of two.

Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art – Madeleine L’Engle

Writing Irresistible Kidlit: The Ultimate Guide to Crafting Fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers– Mary Kole

Of course, I re-read large portions of Second Sight and Novel Metamorphosis  for the Novel Revision class I taught in the spring. I also raced through The War of Art , which didn’t make the list back in January. Same with Advanced Plotting, which I also forgot to add. And I’ve read lots and lots of fiction, which I can’t help but learn from, (two recent titles I picked up to study character — The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Okay for Now – completely knocked my socks off).  As for my list, I’m a little behind. It’s time to jump back in!

Any books on writing you’re planning to read this year?

 

The post Reading About Writing, A Mid-Year Update appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.

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27. Reading About Writing, A Mid-Year Update

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I declared 2014 the year to learn about writing and committed to quite the list of non-fiction (which I only can read in small doses). How have I done so far? I’ve read a grand total of two.

Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art – Madeleine L’Engle

Writing Irresistible Kidlit: The Ultimate Guide to Crafting Fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers– Mary Kole

Of course, I re-read large portions of Second Sight and Novel Metamorphosis  for the Novel Revision class I taught in the spring. I also raced through The War of Art , which didn’t make the list back in January. Same with Advanced Plotting, which I also forgot to add. And I’ve read lots and lots of fiction, which I can’t help but learn from, (two recent titles I picked up to study character — The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Okay for Now – completely knocked my socks off).  As for my list, I’m a little behind. It’s time to jump back in!

Any books on writing you’re planning to read this year?

 

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28. Wisdom from ONE CAME HOME

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Living with uncertainty is like having a rock in your shoe. If you can’t remove the rock, you have to figure out how to walk despite it. There is simply no other choice.

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29. There is No Schedule

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If you’ve been around here for any length of time, you know my friend  J. Anderson Coats says a lot of things that resonate with me. She’s the one who gave me my favorite piece of writing advice and came up with that great cow-through-a-colander writing metaphor.

During a recent email exchange with my Class of 2k12 friends, Jillian shared this:

A writing career is not a sprint. It’s a marathon. You’re not on a schedule. There is no schedule.

That first part, I’ve probably heard it a thousand times. But the second part? It felt like a revelation. It’s true that when you’re on deadline you most certainly have a schedule, but otherwise, the writing life is wide open.

So you know what?

  • If there’s no schedule, someone else isn’t going to beat you to the punch. What you’re working on now will not somehow be replaced by someone else’s (faster) efforts.
  • The market isn’t in charge of your story. You are.
  • For you published folks, you will not be forgotten if you somehow don’t get to keep some “regular” publishing schedule. Yes, your readers might age out, as they say, but there are always new readers to take their place and earlier books to introduce readers to the new ones, whenever they happen to be published.
  • Unless you’re contractually committed, you can write whatever you want whenever you want.
  • And there’s what author/illustrator Ruth McNally Barshaw (my niece’s former Girl Scout leader!) posted on Facebook a few days ago:

Repeated themes I heard at the writer-illustrator conference in LA: Slow down. Take time to do your best work. When you think it’s done, set it aside to assess again later. Build on what you borrow. Be courageous — do work you find important, no matter what others say. LIVE so you’ll have a rich portfolio of experiences to draw and write from. What gets your next book published isn’t luck, desperation, a magic shortcut, or networking with stars; it’s your hard work, your being ready to jump at sudden opportunities, and your connections with friends. #SCBWI14

Here’s to approaching your writing with freedom in the days ahead!

 

 

 

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30. Why We Read

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Books are the plane, the train, and the road. They are the destination and the journey.
-  Anna Quindlen

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31. Classroom Connections: I HEART BAND by Michelle Schusterman + Giveaway

age range: middle grade
setting: middle school band
genre: contemporary fiction
Michelle Schusterman’s website

Fellow band geeks will be thrilled to see themselves in Holly and nonmusicians will appreciate the world of music. A sweet debut.
–School Library Journal

Please tell us about your book.

I HEART BAND is a middle grade series about a seventh grader named Holly who’s pretty obsessed with being first chair French horn in band. Unfortunately, she’s got a rival in new girl Natasha, who’s not only a talented horn player, but spent all summer at band camp bonding with Holly’s best friend, Julia. Band might be a competition, but friendship isn’t, and Holly needs to figure it out before she loses Julia for good.

What inspired you to write this story?

Actually, I was commissioned to write this series. My editor, Jordan Hamessley, is a self-proclaimed band geek from Texas, just like me. She came up with the idea for the series, I wrote the outlines, and we went from there!

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

I was in band from third grade through high school, got my bachelor’s degree in music education, and was a middle and high school band director in Texas for four years…pretty extensive “research” for this series! I had plenty of anecdotes and experiences to draw from when I wrote these books. And of course, my editor had lots of stories about her own time in band too. For each book, we started by meeting for lunch and brainstorming ideas. Because the series progresses throughout Holly’s seventh grade year, there were certain markers we knew we had to hit – all-region auditions, holiday concerts, solo and ensemble contest, the band trip…

After brainstorming, I’d write an outline, my editor would make changes or suggestions, then I’d write the first draft and we’d go from there.

What are some special challenges associated with writing middle grade?

I think one of the hardest things about writing humorous MG is that the humor has to be authentic or kids just won’t buy it. In other words, I can’t sound like a thirty-something year old trying to sound like a seventh grader. My teaching experience definitely came in handy here – lots of time spent listening to how kids talk and joke around. But I’ll definitely catch examples of “trying too hard to be funny” in my drafts during revisions.

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

One comment I’ve been seeing a lot in reviews is how I HEART BAND emphasizes the importance of music education in schools. Throughout the series, Holly and her friends learn not just about music, but how to work together to achieve goals and how to handle winning and losing with grace. There’s also an emphasis on friendships, which often go through a lot of change and strain during adolescence.

Giveaway

Michelle is giving away signed copies of books 1 and 2 for one lucky winner. To enter, simply leave a comment below, sharing a memory from your middle school years. US residents only, please. Contest closes Saturday, August 23.

 

 

 

 

 

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32. Writing Links

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Rejecting Rejection by Sarah Aronson :: The Writing Barn

The Real Job of a Writer :: Chatting at the Sky

Introverted: The Writer’s Power and Downfall :: Darcy Pattison

Dear Soon-To-Be-Published Author :: Writer Unboxed

Self Publishing vs. Traditional: Some Straight Talk :: Nathan Bransford

Picture Books Are for All Ages :: Publishers Weekly

 

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33. Who Gets to Write It?

As regular readers here know, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to write outside my culture. Thank you to Valerie Geary for pointing me to this article at The New York Times.

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These two quotes especially spoke to me:

We’re doing what fiction writers have always done: trying to investigate the world, explore human experience, render precisely what it means to be alive. We’re trying to give voice to everyone on the planet. And who has the right to do that? Do I have the right to write my version of your story?

A writer is like a tuning fork: We respond when we’re struck by something. The thing is to pay attention, to be ready for radical empathy. If we empty ourselves of ourselves we’ll be able to vibrate in synchrony with something deep and powerful.

– “The Right to Write,” Roxana Robinson

Read the full article here.

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34. The Mystery of Grace

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I do not understand the mystery of grace — only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.
– Anne Lamott

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35. Straight From the Source: Michele L. Hathaway on Writing Historical Fiction

Michele L. Hathaway has an M.A. in Social Anthropology and is a freelance editor and writer. Her stories are in various stages of emergence.

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

My stories vary tremendously, but at their core is a love of culture, past, present, and even mythical. The era and story idea come first, the characters emerge later to make the culture come alive. Sometimes the landscape is the starting point. This is the case for the Navajo stories I am writing. I spent quite a bit of time in the North American Southwest as a child and an adult, so it occupies a large swath of my inner landscape. I feel more alive here than anywhere else on the planet. Sometimes I am captivated by an entire era, such as the first 400 years A.D. of Mediterranean history, along with key historical figures from this period. Then again, I have a story idea that takes my characters around the modern day world, but the research involved with getting these cultures right is almost identical to historical research.

How do you conduct your research?

At the beginning of a project, especially one where I don’t have a large body of knowledge already in place, I’m like a child at a carnival. I careen from one amusement to another until I find myself breathless at the top of the Ferris wheel. From here I look down on the whole journey. When I get back to earth I filling in the blank spaces on a need-to-know basis.

If you are wondering what I’m talking about, here’s the general plan: I go to the library and load up on as many books as I can get my hands on. I scan these, usually finding I am attracted to some more than others. Resources that are most helpful I might buy so I can mark them up and keep them near for reference. I copy the bibliographies of the most helpful to see what inspired the author, where their research originated. I’ve found gems this way. From there I follow trails that branch further and further. If a source is mentioned by several authors, I look at that. I never stop researching, I always have a book or two going as I write. This keeps me in the story, inspires, guides, and corrects. One thing to be aware of is new research coming out. Since I began my Navajo stories, I’ve found a few new books that are gems. So check back with your library from time to time.

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Do you have a specific system for collecting data?

No unless you count the carnival method mentioned above, and the aftermath.

What kinds of sources do you use? 

I use any and all resources that apply. I use books, the Internet, travel, experts and interviews. Books may include academic, historical fiction, and picture books. Picture books should not be underestimated. They are great for researching folk tales and imprinting visual details. When I was researching for a forest fire scene, I needed the photos to help me with concrete details.

The Internet is also helpful for visual images as well as hunting down an obscure fact, like the name of the owner of the Thunderbird Trading Post in 1945—Leon Hugh “Cozy” McSparron, by the way. I couldn’t have thought up a better name. Sometimes you need to hear coyote song or the crackle of a forest fire, or see Mexicans harvesting vanilla beans, or Navajos playing string games.

If I find a book that does more than inform, but inspires, I contact the author. This has led to great help and a friendship or two. You’ll find that people who are passionate about their topic are happy to talk about it.

Finally, if I can, I travel and observe the setting of my novel first hand, be it Navajoland or Egypt—what a great excuse to travel, eh?

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

An author, whose name escapes me, once said, “Write sooner than you think you can.” When I feel, not quite saturated, but too impatient to wait any longer, I begin. Usually my characters are coming alive within the history, the culture, the landscape, or the myth. I write until I find a hole in my knowledge. Then I stop and research until that hole is filled. I continue on as quickly as I can. When I find new information, I add that or rewrite if I need a course correction.
What is your favorite thing about research?

I love to learn new things, and I love to put these things into the framework of a story. Writing historical fiction allows me to be a perpetual graduate student without the exams—the book is my thesis. I haven’t graduated yet, but I can see the day, shimmering in the distance.

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What’s your least favorite thing about research?

I wonder if I have done enough, if I am missing something important. I don’t have time to read every book cover to cover, so I worry that I have missed something. Or missed the “right” book.

What’s your favorite thing about writing historical fiction?

Studying history is time travel. I am transported to places and times I can’t go to any other way. It is one of the most thrilling rides of my life.

What are some obstacles writing historical fiction brings?

I believe the most difficult thing about writing historical fiction is getting the psychology of the period right. It is easy to fall into the trap of dressing a modern American in a toga and calling him a typical Roman. Critics will jump all over that. As they should. A 1940’s Navajo girl in boarding school will not talk back to her teacher, no matter how spunky she is. A Greek-Egyptian Boy from 345 AD is probably not going to see slavery as extreme injustice. Making your story true yet accessible to modern readers is tricky. Check out Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book for a good example of grasping the psychology of medieval England. (warning—this is a devastating book, a Hugo-Nebula Award Winning, wonderful, devastating book. I love it.)

Sometimes it is helpful to read a stratified selection for research. Read writers from as many decades or centuries as you can find to help off-set bias. This is complex and yet fascinating. The reality is there is no way to see history through a pure lens. We bring ourselves, our culture, our social bias to any historical interpretation. We have to do our best here. We have to work hard, work honestly, write the truest story we can.

What’s one of the most interesting things you’ve learned while researching?

Wow! It is hard to pick one and hard to think of one, because at some point the research goes internal and becomes a part of me, transforms me. I can think of one or two things that stand out though. One is the complexity and beauty of Navajo myth and legend. We hear so much about Greek and Roman myth, but have no idea how deep and interwoven Native American literature is with history, culture, creativity, beauty. I could go on and on. Part of why I write these stories is to share this body of wonderful literature.

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

My research has shown me where I have gone off track, but most often where I need more depth. I find the feedback from “experts” most helpful. Research has not caused me to have to abandon the work, rather it provides course corrections and transforms it, always transforms it, so that I am following a truer path. Not a perfect path. Not a path everyone will agree with, but a truer path. And that is the best all of us can do.

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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?

When retelling myth, there are almost always different versions of the story because it is from oral tradition. At some point, the writer of fiction has to choose one version (or even blend versions, which does not change the truth of the story, but that is another topic). For example, in Navajo legend, the Hero Twins are sometimes born of one woman, or sometimes they were born of two women but are still twins. This does not present a problem for the Navajo, but the rest of the world can’t reconcile the dissonance. To avoid confusion, I have chosen to have them both born of one woman.

If a historical figure is famous enough, there will be problems. No question. One of mine is a saint. He is revered by millions. I cannot presume to write a biography; few are qualified to attempt it. Therefore, I am writing about him through the eyes of a young protagonist. This way the story is about the boy, but I can open a window on this amazing historical figure, allow for his flaws, but not presume to offer a complete biography.

Why is historical fiction important?

Historical fiction is not only important, it is fantastically important. It is obviously important for its historical content, but there is so much more. I believe, historical fiction is a safe environment to explore modern issues. For children this is critical. Because the story is set in another time, it is not so close that it generates anxiety, but it brings up situations and issues children may have to deal with now or in the future—a sick sibling, an absent father, or even the trauma of war. All of this can provide them with tools to help them cope with their situation, help them discover who they are and who they want to become.

One day I was on a bus driving along the waterfront in Alexandria, Egypt. Two women in head scarves were sitting on the sea wall talking while their toddlers played nearby. It struck me in that moment, in that one scene as the bus sped by, that I was more like them than I was different. They were two friends, with children, having a chat. I’ve been there. They are me and I am them. I’d like others to see the world that way. That we are more alike than we are different.

 

 

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36. We Need Books: The Editor’s Perspective

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We need books — and I want to publish books — that reflect the whole range of a child or teenager’s emotional experiences and take us through those experiences with them. So the stories come through a child’s heart and speak to a child’s heart; so they have the bravery and honesty to look at a muddle* and acknowledge its pain, and not to be moralistic or easy; and, in the end, to help us all make it through.

– Cheryl Klein, SECOND SIGHT: AN EDITOR’S TALKS ON WRITING, REVISING, AND PUBLISHING BOOKS FOR CHILDREN AND YOUNG ADULTS

*A muddle is a concept Cheryl has borrow from author E.M. Forster. “It’s the point at which your vision of yourself and your purpose in the world is clouded by other things — by other people’s opinions, by the fact that you don’t know who you are or if you have a purpose in the world. It’s an identity crisis, essentially.”

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37. On Writing

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You never again love a book the way you do as a child. Let’s make sure our books are worthy of their love.
Linda Sue Park, SCBWI Los Angeles Conference, 2014

Yes, that’s original Little House art!

 

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38. Over in Them Wetlands: A Summer Swamp Tour

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In June, we spent two weeks in Texas.  While my husband had some meetings the boys and I headed to Houma, LA, the second-happiest city in the US, and our home for three years. Ten minutes in to Louisiana, a roseate spoonbill, a native bird I’d never, ever seen, flew over our car, kind of like a state ambassador welcoming us back.

I was determined to go on a swamp tour while we were in town — something we never got around to doing when we lived in Houma (though we sure loved our swamp adventures). I scheduled a trip with Cajun Man Swamp Tours, invited some friends to come along.

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The super personable “Black” Guidry was our guide (check him out here in this Kia commercial). As there were French Canadians on board, Black gave the tour in both English and French, which was a lovely little Cajun bonus.

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Oh, we sweltered. But there was Spanish moss!

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And cypress knees (those little knobby things poking out of the water on the left-hand side)!

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Egrets!

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Even Leroy came to visit!

The tour felt especially personal knowing OVER IN THE WETLANDS, my picture book love letter to Coastal Louisiana, is coming out sometime next year.

A few days after the tour I stumbled on these gorgeous WETLANDS images from illustrator Rob Dunlavey’s studio.

The tour, that spoonbill, those illustrations, they were all like coming home.

 

 

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39. A Few Questions About BLUE BIRDS

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Please indulge me. I’m a bit gaga over my new book.

Those of you who receive my newsletter have already read this, but I thought it might be fun to share here, too. Since the cover for BLUE BIRDS was revealed in June, I’ve gotten a few questions, the first being this:

Where are the blue birds?

There are two ways to answer: The cover has zero…or three.

The wooden bird the Kimi and Alis share is a representation of the Eastern bluebird — a gift given to Alis by her Uncle Samuel. I sent the Balbusso sisterslink to John White’s watercolor of iacháwanes (the Roanoke word for this bird). I love the echoes of his work Anna and Elena have included, such as the shape of the blue bird’s tail.

The other two blue birds on the cover? They are my girls, Kimi and Alis. Which brings us to the second question: How do you pronounce these girls’ names?

Alis is the Elizabethan spelling for Alice (as is Alys or Alyse. Those Elizabethans, they never were consistent). I have to confess Kimi is a website find, a name simply listed as an Algonquian* girl name. I can’t speak to its veracity or even its proper pronunciation, but in my head Kimi is Keemee (and not Kimmy). Kimi’s name means secret, which was a huge draw for me, as the girls’ friendship is a forbidden one.

For those of you interested, BLUE BIRDS is already available for pre-order. And if you’d like to receive my quarterly-ish newsletter, simply sign up here.

 

*Algonquian is a language family with over two dozen dialects. The Roanoke spoke a now extinct Algonquian dialect.

 

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40. The Fuzzy Muse and a BLUE BIRDS Giveaway

When we got Boudreaux three years ago, I hoped she’d keep me company while writing, be a warm, faithful soul who’d stay by me as I worked.  She’s been that and more.

Boo’s been around since the beginning of BLUE BIRDS, back when I started reading everything I could find on the Lost Colony of Roanoke. She took a special shine to the manuscript, too. Here she is with first-round edits,

second-round edits,

Boo and FPP

and now, with an advance reader copy.

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It seemed fitting that Boo get her own copy of BLUE BIRDS, but seeing as she hasn’t yet learned to read and it’s not as tasty as she first hoped, Boo’s offering to give her copy away.

If you’d like to read the book a full seven months before it’s published, enter below!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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41. Sometimes You Get an Email That Takes Your Breath Away

July’s the month I take a blogging sabbath. Throughout the course of the month, I’ll re-run some oldies but goodies. Enjoy!

Thank you for writing May B., the email said, and sent me to this blog post.

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

I remember that intimate dedication and 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 am deeply moved and grateful Amy reached out to share this with me. I’m again reminded that what we create is always bigger than anything we could ever imagine. Please click through to Stories and Thyme to read the rest.

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42. The Fear of Writing Outside Your Experience — And Doing It Anyway

July’s the month I take a blogging sabbath. Throughout the course of the month, I’ll re-run some oldies but goodies. Enjoy!

Yesterday I turned in my first-round edits on BLUE BIRDS – a verse novel about the Lost Colony of Roanoke told from the perspective of Alis, an English girl, and Kimi, a Roanoke girl. The story didn’t start this way. I initially intended to write solely from Alis’s perspective. But when I realized the forbidden friendship between Alis and Kimi is what the entire story hinges upon, I couldn’t keep things as I first planned.

And that kind of terrified me.

There are a lot of opinions and strong, strong feelings as to who has permission to write certain books. I’m a non-Native author. What gives me the right to try and speak for a thirteen-year-old Roanoke girl?

I’m still not sure. But I’ve been a girl. And I know how profoundly friendship can shape a person. I’ve been in new cultural settings and have learned to see the foreign as familiar and the familiar as foreign. This answer won’t be enough for some readers. I understand that. But I’ve gone ahead and written the book anyway.

In the mean time, I’m drawing courage from the It’s Complicated series at the Children’s Book Council Diversity blog.

What are your feelings about writers working outside their cultural experience?

 

 

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43. Five Things I Learned From NaNoWriMo

July’s the month I take a blogging sabbath. Throughout the course of the month, I’ll re-run some oldies but goodies. Enjoy!

It was with a bit of reluctance I decided to join in this year’s National Novel Writing Month. For those of you unfamiliar with NaNoWriMo, it’s a month-long challenge to produce 50,000 words on a new piece of writing. I’d tried NaNo in 2009 and failed miserably. I never, ever was going to do it again. But things came together for me this year in a way that joining in made sense:

  • BLUE BIRDS was off with my editor
  • I was at the point with my research for a new novel that I was itching to get started
  • I read this blog post by Darcy Pattison
  • My critique partner, Valerie Geary, promised me peanut butter cookies if I made it through

I didn’t sign up officially. Instead I created a contest of one I called Fake-o NaNo, where I aimed to write 1500 words a day six days a week. I missed one day, had a good number of sessions I didn’t hit 1500 (and a couple I wrote more), and felt finished with the draft a few days before Thanksgiving — the exact day BLUE BIRDS “flew” back to me in a big padded envelope.

Here are five things I learned from the experience:

  1. Slow and steady has been my writing mantra this year. But sometimes fast and furious is just as important. Typically, I write verse novels and picture books. It’s a sloooow process, especially when I’m initially drafting. But with this new novel, I’m trying my hand at prose, something I haven’t poked at for seven or eight years. Throwing words on a page was a very liberating, non-committal way to reintroduce myself to this form. With my first NaNo attempt, I got stuck during the first week and decided to stop. This time around was no different. I faced the same impossible rut one week in. But I kept moving, mainly by sticking to the next lesson I learned.
  2. Sometimes you just have to write about the writing. While I’ve kept a journal for this book since April, I still have a lot of exploring to do. Many days I found myself writing about what was working in the story and what wasn’t. Things I’d have to look further into, characters I needed to add, relationships I needed to develop. Really, the draft became a running commentary, an in-the-moment chance to reflect on my ideas (or lack of them). I know this will be invaluable when I return to the book in a few months.
  3. Practice holds the fear at bay. I’ve written here a lot about how much angst is bound up in my first drafts. The creative process is a scary thing for me, and beginning (and finishing) a first draft is my biggest challenge. By holding myself to a daily goal, I was able to break through some of that fear by simply showing up and doing the work.
  4. Embrace the mess. The “draft” I finished with is quite possibly the messiest, worst thing I’ve ever written. But it’s been such a great experiment in getting words down, feeling out characters, and sometimes learning exactly what I don’t want to write about (by first doing just that). Knowing I could toss it all took me in some directions I might never have discovered if my approach had been more careful.
  5. Did I mention the cookies? Committing out loud to a friend kept me honest. And the cookies were a great pay off!
Did any of you participate in NaNoWriMo this year? What was your experience like?

This post is a part of Chatting at the Sky’s Tuesdays Unwrapped series.

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44. Straight From the Source: Katherine Longshore on Writing Historical Fiction

Katherine Longshore is a former travel agent, coffeehouse barista and preschool teacher who has finally found her calling writing novels for teens.  She is the author of GILT, TARNISH and BRAZEN, a series of novels set in the court of Henry VIII, published by Viking and the “Downtonesque” MANOR OF SECRETS published by Scholastic.  After five years exploring castles and country manors in England, she now lives in California with three British citizens and one expatriate dog.  Visit her online at www.katherinelongshore.com.

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

I typically begin with character. That said, characters come to me because of the historical era, so it becomes a question of the chicken or the egg. For me, however, the story doesn’t begin without the character, so that’s where I start.

My first book, GILT, came about because I thought, “Catherine Howard was a teenager when she married Henry VIII. She’d be a great character for a YA book!” But my narrator, Kitty Tylney, was born out of a news item about a rape at Richmond High School in California—one observed, but not reported, by as many as twenty other people. And I decided I wanted to write about a character who observed atrocities and wrongdoings, and for whatever reason, didn’t do anything until it was too late.

Anne Boleyn in TARNISH came to me on a long drive one Thanksgiving weekend—I’d been pondering writing about her, but didn’t find the courage until I thought about how she might have felt, as a teenager, being transplanted from her adoptive home of France (where she’d lived for seven years) to the very foreign world of the Henrician court.

The only book where I did the opposite was BRAZEN. I began with the historical figure—Mary Howard—a woman who became quietly independent in later years, avoiding court machinations whenever possible. But I didn’t know who she was—that is, who my fictional character needed to be—until I’d written the first draft. This was definitely a case of the story—and the writing of the novel—informing the character rather than the other way around.

How long do you typically research before beginning to draft?

I like to tell people that I researched Henry VIII, his wives, and the Tudor era for ten years before I started GILT. This is absolutely true, but invites a misconception. I didn’t do the research with the idea of writing a novel in mind, I did the research because I was fascinated and wanted to know more. Ultimately, I wanted to understand the characters, so delving into their psychology through fiction seemed a natural transition.

Once I have made the decision to write a book, however, I usually research for about a month before I begin to write. I reread histories and find new ones to look for new insights. I take notes on index cards, even though I don’t always refer back to them. I’m a visual and tactile learner, so the act of writing something down cements it more firmly in my mind.

I continue to do research throughout every draft, finding specific details like Where was Henry VIII’s court on July 25, 1535? Or What kind of dress would a kitchen maid wear in 1911? Some of the answers can be found online (the Letters and Papers of Henry VIII is an invaluable resource!) and others have to be gleaned from more books. While finishing the third draft of BRAZEN, I read Alison Weir’s wonderful book about Anne Boleyn’s last days, The Lady in the Tower, which helped me write a key chapter using the vivid details Weir is so adept at providing.

What is your favorite thing about research?

The sense of discovery, and being able to pass that on to readers. One of the things I love about reading history and historical fiction is feeling immersed in this world that no longer exists. So discovering bright details that can make the world come alive is utterly inspiring. Which tapestry Henry VIII had hanging in the great hall of Hampton Court. What the upstairs rooms in a country manor smelled like to a downstairs maid. The name of Anne Boleyn’s lap dog, the view from Greenwich Palace…Details give us the greatest impression of the reality of history—that people actually lived and died and loved like we do.

What’s your least favorite thing about research?

Dates and numbers. I was always pretty good at math, and I don’t mind it—in fact, it keeps my mind sharp. But I don’t have an affinity for numbers. I don’t remember them, and sometimes I transpose them (782 can become 287 very easily—in fact, I can look at one number and say the other out loud. Made people very nervous when I ran a cash register!) I’ve been reading about Henry VIII for fifteen years and writing about him for five of those, and I can’t tell you his birth date or year without looking it up. But I can tell you who his mother’s father’s brother’s daughter was (Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury). To me, the real meat of history happens between the people—in the gossip and their personalities and interactions. The numbers and battles never interested me, which is why I think is disliked history as a teen—that’s how our knowledge was tested.

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?

One of the reasons I love writing historical fiction is to make sense of some of the “muddy” historical characters I’ve come across. You would think Anne Boleyn would be straightforward—after all, there have been biographies, novels, plays, poems, operas, songs and movies made about her. But we still don’t know when she was born. It’s generally believed she was born in 1501, but I had to accept a later date (which some historians support) in order for her to be a teenager during the time period I chose to write about.

Mary Howard’s biography is even muddier. We know she married Henry Fitzroy (Henry VIII’s illegitimate son) at the age of fourteen. But no one knows for sure where she was for the next three years. Was she at court, serving Queen Anne Boleyn? Was she at her father’s (the Duke of Norfolk) home of Kenninghall? Or was she somewhere else entirely? Was she ever allowed even to see her husband? No one knows. There is no record. I decided to keep her at court because of a single mention of her being close to Anne Boleyn—and therefore occasionally coming into contact with Henry Fitzroy. Through this decision, I was able to explore the question, “How do you fall in love with someone you rarely get to see?” It became one of the central questions of the book. So for BRAZEN, history in some ways made the story easier to discover. The very muddiness freed me up to write a story that wasn’t hampered by all those dates I find so frustrating.

Unfortunately, history is also incredibly inflexible. I found it heartbreaking to have to write some events into my books. Deaths, arguments, poor decisions. I have used some choice words to rail at history over the past five years, but I always succumb eventually.

 

 

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45. Why We Read

Happy is he who  has laid up in his youth and held fast in all fortune a genuine and passionate love of reading.
- Rufus Choate

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46. Writing Links

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How To Kill a School Library in Ten Easy Steps :: School Library Journal

Bestselling YA Authors Share “The Book I’m Most Thankful For” :: Parade Magazine

Why Do Young Readers Prefer Print to eBooks? :: The Guardian

If I Only Had Connections…. :: Rick Riordan

Boys Will Be Boys, and Girls Will Be Accommodating: Why “Boy Books” Aren’t Always the Solution :: Laurel Snyder 

Strong Writers Do This :: Kristi Holl

No one cares about your novel: So writers, don’t be boring! :: Salon

 

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47. Classroom Connections: WHAT FLOWERS REMEMBER by Shannon Wiersbitzky

flowers

age range: middle grade
genre: contemporary fiction
topic: Alzheimer’s disease

“[Delia’s] frustration, fear and sense of loss will be readily recognizable to others who have experienced dementia in a loved one, and her story may provide some guidance on how to move down that rocky path toward acceptance and letting go. …What do flowers remember? The stories of the people who cared for them, of course, as Wiersbitzky’s sensitive novel compassionately conveys.” – Kirkus Reviews

Please tell us about your book.

In What Flowers Remember, due to a shared love of flowers and gardening, Delia and her elderly neighbor Old Red Clancy dream up a seed- and flower-selling business. The two make quite a pair. He has the know-how and she has the get-up-and-go. But something is happening to Old Red. And the doctors say he can’t be cured. He’s forgetting places and names and getting cranky for no reason. As his condition worsens, Delia takes it upon herself to save as many memories as she can. Her mission is to gather Old Red’s stories so that no one will forget, and she corrals everybody in town to help.

What Flowers Remember is a story of love and loss, of a young girl coming to understand that even when people die, they live on in our minds, our hearts, and our stories.

What inspired you to write this story?

I spent my childhood summers with my grandparents in a small town in West Virginia, not totally unlike the fictional town of Tucker’s Ferry. As a result, my grandparents became like second parents. When I was in my twenties, my grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I hoped and prayed that he wouldn’t forget me. But of course, the disease doesn’t work that way, and I was forgotten along with everyone else he loved. The moment I realized he no longer knew who I was is something I will never forget. It broke my heart. And it was that nugget which inspired this story.

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

I did research on Alzheimer’s as I wrote the novel. The Alzheimer’s Association has a wealth of information. While I knew what my grandfather experienced, I didn’t know if that was typical or if there were other signs and symptoms which might be worth including to make it more accurate. Most people only think of Alzheimer’s as losing memories, but it can often cause changes in mood, and even result in a loss of smell. I included both of those in the book.

Shannon_Wiersbitzky_Author_Photo_2012

Alzheimer’s isn’t typically a disease associated with children. Why include this as a topic in a middle-grade novel?  

I never set out to write a book “about Alzheimer’s”. I wanted to write a story that spoke to my own truth, about how it feels to be forgotten by someone you love. Within the context of fiction, I imagined what a young girl might do, and what an entire town might do, if they felt they could, in some way, prevent memories from being forgotten.

The reality is that according to the Alzheimer’s Association, one in three seniors will suffer from some type of dementia. One in three. That is an astounding number. It also means that there are many children who will be impacted by the disease. Whether it is grandparents or parents, or someone else they know and love. I hope the story will help kids (and adults) who are experiencing or have experienced Alzheimer’s in some way.

*Note: A portion of the proceeds from the sale of this book are donated to the Alzheimer’s Association.

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

There are many topics in the book a teacher could explore:

Memories. Every family has favorite memories. Memories that are passed down from generation to generation. What memories do families keep alive? How? What memories would students never want to forget? Project ideas: Create a memory board. Interview family or friends for favorite memories.

Flowers. Flowers have different meanings and many, like the pansies noted in the book, have different folk tales associated with them. What flowers do students like most? What stories or meanings are linked to them? Project idea: Pick a flower and explain how its meaning links to your own life.

Teaching and Learning. Delia is a sort of gardening apprentice to Old Red. Everyone has a skill they can teach someone else. Project idea: Have each student pick something they’re good at and teach the rest of the class how to do it.

Handling Conflict. Delia and her friend Mae meet up with a local bully at their school festival. Discussion topic: Assess how Delia handled her situation and explore how they have handled their own situations. What might they do in specific circumstances?

You can connect with author Shannon Wiersbitzky here:

Website
Facebook
Twitter
Goodreads

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48. An Exquisite, Stunning, Gorgeous Cover for BLUE BIRDS!

I have been waiting to share this beauty since the moment I first saw it. But here’s a secret. You won’t see it here but over at The Nerdy Book Club today. If you don’t know Nerdy, you’re in for a treat. It’s a blog that celebrates children’s literature with posts from teachers, librarians, readers, and authors.

Before you head over, though, I wanted to show you a little something. In February, when I knew my editor and Penguin’s art director were starting to think about a cover, I thought I’d try my hand at creating my own. I did this with MAY B. So did my older boy. With BLUE BIRDS, one image stood out. I tired to capture it here:

February BB sketch

When my editor sent me the initial sketch from illustrators Anna and Elena Balbusso, there were goosebumps. Truly. Head over to the Nerdy Book Club to see why!

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49. July’s for Reflection and Rest

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Three years ago I took my first extended blogging break. My family was going on vacation, and I needed some time to unwind. I scheduled links to old posts and left on a road trip, bringing along a copy of THE SHALLOWS: WHAT THE INTERNET IS DOING TO OUR BRAINS. If you haven’t read it, it’s a remarkable book. I wrote a few posts about it the following August, which you can read here and here.

This book and the month-long break were a real confirmation for me: I need to schedule regular periods of time away from the Internet. With a job that involves a lot of computer time, it is good and healthy for me to sometimes step away.  In addition to my blog break, I also refrain from Facebook and Twitter. If you’re looking for me, you can always drop me an email. Otherwise, I’ll see you again in August.

I’ve scheduled some posts to re-run — a “new” one each week — that I hope will interest you. Enjoy your summer, friends!

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50. 2013 Writing Goals: Hit, Miss, or Somewhere In Between?

July’s the month I take a blogging sabbath. Throughout the course of the month, I’ll re-run some oldies but goodies. Enjoy!

I thought it would be fun to look over the goals I set for my writing this year, to see what worked and what didn’t. And in light of this recent discussion on author output, comparison, and finding peace with my own creative processes, the timing felt right.

At the end of last year, our SCBWI-NM monthly schmooze focused on personal writing goals. During that session, I took a one-page calendar and marked out school holidays, family vacations, and other important dates I knew in advance. And then I aimed high.

Here’s what I wanted to tackle in 2013:

  1. research for a new picture book
  2. twelve new picture book manuscripts (!!!)
  3. six months of research for a new novel
  4. three months of drafting this new novel
  5. blog/reading goal: re-read The Complete Journals of Lucy Maud Montgomery, Volumes I-V and write about it here

 Author Chris Eboch led a second schmooze discussion in July about reassessing our goals. I noticed a few things:

  1. I was already waaay off on the picture book goal.
  2. Due to some wonderful news, I needed to change my novel goals.
  3. This was all A-okay.

One of the best things I got from Chris’s talk was information on author Kristi Holl’s Rx for Writers: Managing Your Writing Space and Your Writing Time (a free mini e-book).

Kristi talks about four terms that are key to a writer’s success:

  • DREAMS: not under your control
  • GOALS: under your control
  • SUB-GOALS: specific to-do steps under each goal
  • HABITS: daily practices that support your sub-goals

The distinction between what an author can control and what she can’t is key.* For example, while aiming to nab an agent is wonderful, it’s a dream, not a goal. But there are steps (sub-goals) a writer can take to do all that is in her control in this regard, from completing a manuscript, working with critique partners to revise it, taking advantage of contests or grants that might give feedback on her work, researching agents for the best fit, writing and evaluating a query letter, and finally sending it out.

A dream that wasn’t in my control changed the course of some of my writing goals this year. Some goals, such as the twelve picture books, were way off track.

Here’s what I actually did in 2013:

  1. research for a new picture book
  2. two new picture book manuscripts
  3. four months of research on a new novel
  4. one month drafting this new novel
  5. work on first and second-round edits for Blue Birds
  6. blog/reading goal: met! Plus I read the new(ish) LMM biography, THE GIFT OF WINGS by journal co-editor, Mary Rubio

 Over all, I’m pleased with this year’s work. As for next year, I’ll consider re-visiting some of those picture book ideas, work on my novels within my editor’s time table, flex when surprises come, and keep re-assessing what’s best for my work and me.

Do you set writing goals? How have you fared this year?

 

 

*Unless you’re a local superstar author who recently shared with me she likes to set goals like “I’ll sell two novels and one picture book this year”…and does just that!

 

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