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You might remember earlier this year I committed to learning how to write smart and not scared. At the time I was working on a picture book manuscript as I awaited first-round edits on my next novel.
That picture book is now on submission. The first-round edits are back with my editor. I’d love to say everything has been as easy as pie, but that’s not the way the writing life works — or any part of life, really. Here are the things I continue to learn as I think about writing in light of this mindset:
Discomfort will always be part of my process. I find the writing life wonderful and challenging and joyous and hard, but I often let the more difficult parts that come with writing play a starring role. I’m trying to remember those hard parts don’t get the final word. As Elizabeth Gilbert says, fear can ride in the car, but it has to stay in the back seat.
My deepest satisfaction comes from the work itself. I know this. But somehow along the way, sales and reviews and all the ridiculous externals out of my control can hijack what’s really important. A huge thank you to Marion Dane Bauer for her recent blog post I’ve read a couple dozen times about satisfaction and gratitude and letting go of the rest.
“No” is often a gift. All of September and October, I’ve been running on Wednesday evenings with my seventh grader’s soccer team. One particular Wednesday held the perfect combination of the out-of-my-hands highs and lows that make up the writing life. A novel was nominated for an award. A manuscript, after ten months with a particular editor and extensive re-writes, was rejected.
I left for the run pretty heartbroken and in need of distraction. As I settled into the soothing familiarity of a steady run, the clouds opened in a desert storm above us, and I was able to move beyond the disappointment, I was able to celebrate the beauty of my surroundings, the gift of movement, the privilege to share in this piece of my son’s life. And when our hour in the Sandia foothills drew to a close, I was ready to reflect on that rejection more objectively. The editor who said no to my work really gave me a gift. Her request for a re-write helped me find a stronger book in the process.
Choosing a challenge is ultimately satisfying. Writing the book I don’t know how to master can keep me up at nights, but that’s the direction my heart is often drawn. These words will keep me moving and believing.
Breaks feed my creativity. In the last four months I’ve re-written a novel for the second time, finishing with a mad twenty-five hour weekend dash to the end. Something that kept me focused during that last month of hard work was the promise I’d take a whole month off of writing afterward. Fear would not be allowed to drive me to spin my wheels in meaningless productivity. Outside of blogging, my focus would be reading.
I’m in week three of my writing vacation, and let me tell you, it’s everything I needed and more.
When I first mentioned this concept of writing smart and not scared, a number of you contacted me to say you were all in. I’d love to hear how you’re doing in the comments below.
The post An Update on Writing Smart and Not Scared appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.
Two weeks ago at my writing retreat when I was nearing the end of my manuscript and wasn’t sure how it would all come together, my friend Uma Krishnaswami shared these quotes with me. They are paraphrases in the spirit of the original, things she reminds herself of in the uncertainty of the work. They’ve encouraged me, and I hope they’ll do the same for you.
Whatever moves you, write that story.
— Norma Fox Mazer
Write the book you don’t know how to write.
— M. T. Anderson
Trust that you will become the writer that the next revision needs you to be.
— Sharon Darrow
I’m beginning to understand that I’ll find my best writing only when I’m courageous enough to move toward the impossible and unknowable.
The post Three Quotes to Keep You Writing When You Feel You Don’t Know How appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.
This was a liberation. It opened me up to the absolute truth of writing for me, that craft and art matter above all else. That in their service, I love the actual hair-pulling, nail-biting process of creating prose. This has been the gift over and over. It brings me back from the continuing rejection, makes me want to cry in gratitude for the dark time of the too-small table and feeble chair.
— On Writing, Rejection, and Persistence by Ruth Galm
The post On Writing appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.
For three years now I’ve had the privilege of returning to an old adobe house in Corrales for a writing retreat. The home is lovely and spacious with creaking wooden floors in some rooms and uneven brick in others and the gorgeous curving lines adobe lends to everything. It’s so very New Mexican, just being there inspires me.
There’s something grounding about going back to the same creative space year after year. This chaise is where I finished first-round edits on Blue Birds two years ago. It’s the same spot where this year I put in a twenty-five hour mad dash to the end of a new set of first-round edits, punctuated with breaks for meals and sleeping, a bit of conversation and this movie.
I was able to immerse myself in my work in a way that doesn’t happen often at home, surrounded by like-minded women who understand the joy, the discomfort, and the privilege of the writing life. And once, after our time together had passed, I was able to enter the real world again refreshed and with a renewed sense of why what I do matters and the purpose behind it all.
I hope you, too, find spaces that speak beauty and inspiration into your own creative endeavors.
The post Returning to Creative Spaces appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.
I’m not sure thank you adequately expresses my appreciation for those of you who read here, but those are the only words I have. I hope you sense the weightiness and heart behind them:
Many thanks to those of you who read this post and wrote Amazon reviews for May B., Blue Birds, and Over in the Wetlands. It took time and reflection as well as true interest and love on your part, and I am so grateful.
Thank you for the bolstering words many of you left (including the lovely gift from my neighbor pictured above) when I let you know I needed some encouragement to finish my first-round edits. I’ve returned to your comments many times these past weeks. They kept me working to the very end.
When I started blogging six years ago this month, I had no sense of the rich and enduring connections I’d make as a result. For those of you who have been here from the beginning or have joined in sometime afterward,
The post Overwhelmed with Gratitude appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.
Twenty-three years ago this summer I backpacked down the Grand Canyon’s Kaibab Trail with seven kids from my youth group and came up Bright Angel a week later. Each day we packed our gear at three in the morning so we could begin our hike before the heat kicked in full blast. By the last morning of the trip, I was utterly spent. The steep climb out of the canyon left me feeling like maybe I wouldn’t make it. Maybe I’d be stuck on that trail forever.
I stopped moving about a half mile from the canyon’s rim, unsure how to muster up the strength to keep going. It didn’t matter I could see the end. Getting there felt near impossible.
That’s when I experienced a simple act of kindness that has lived with me ever since. My youth sponsor, Jim, told me I wouldn’t finish alone. We’d make it to the top together, one hundred steps at a time. Step by step we counted, resting after every set. While before the half mile had felt unsurmountable, broken down in tiny bits with someone else to walk beside me, it was doable. It was accomplishment and gratitude and so much celebration.
As I near the end of a complete manuscript overhaul in the midst of first-round edits (the second time I’ve re-written this book, by the way), I’ve thought a lot about that moment. I’m a few weeks out from my deadline, and honestly, I’m not sure of the words needed to make it to the end. Right now my focus must be each tiny writing moment, where the story moves forward, step by step.
Friends, I need an extra dose of courage and a second wind, if you have any to offer. Things will be quiet around here until I’ve turned my work in.
The post Step by Step, Word by Word appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.
Summer’s almost over, but that doesn’t mean the fun has to end. Here are some great links to keep you reading and writing far into the fall.
Summer Notebooking :: Amy Ludwig Vanderwater
Summer Road Trip! Five More Books Set in Connecticut, Louisiana, Missouri, Massachusetts, and Kansas :: Barnes and Noble (lovely to find Miss May here!)
Fifty Great Books for Kids to Read This Summer :: The Washington Post
31 Great Summer Books :: Real Simple
The post Links to Stretch Your Summer Reading and Writing appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.
I spent fourteen years as an author in training, and while I learned many things in that time, I’m finding there are a slew of different lessons on the other side of publication. One key facet of my writing life is figuring out how to protect my creativity — how to let it grow and expand with a new project, how to feed it, how to keep it from being damaged during the fragile moments a story is finding its way.
Please join me at Kirby Larson’s blog to read the rest. I’d love to hear how you go about protecting and nurturing your creativity.
The post Protecting Creativity appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.
My boys and I just re-discovered this particular book. Thought it would be fun to share with all of you again!
Cut in half.
Rustle up some silly kids.
Spread out on the kitchen table.
Set up a chart.
Number your pages.
Create a Choose Your Own Adventure Story.
(Ours is called THE BLACK DOOM and includes a haunted castle with a parking lot, an eyeless lifeguard [who later gets olives as eyes], lots of gorillas, a pool full of raspberry Jello, and an annual haunted castle pizza party).
The post New Use for Old Manuscripts appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.
I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.
― Anne Frank
The post On Writing appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.
What I’m beginning to learn about writing books is that if I show up enough times, I start to run out of mistakes to make. But of course not all at once. That would be too easy.
The post Musing in the Midst of First-Round Edits appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.
Please tell us about your latest book, Enchanted Air.
Thank you for your interest! Enchanted Air, Two Cultures, Two Wings, is a verse memoir. In one sense it’s a travel book about the unusual experience of visiting relatives in Cuba during the Cold War. On another level, it’s simply about being bicultural, an experience shared by so many U.S. Latino children. I wrote this memoir as a plea for peace and family reconciliation, a process which quite amazingly began on December 17, 2014, during the same week when advanced review copies of Enchanted Air arrived on my doorstep! Of course, I rushed to revise the historical note to include President Obama’s announcement about the renewal of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations, changing my tone from a desperate plea to a song of gratitude.
There have been a number of verse memoirs published the last few years. Could you explain how you decided to use verse for your memoir? What does verse offer that prose doesn’t?
While I was writing Enchanted Air, I had no idea that Jacqueline Woodson and Marilyn Nelson were also working on their own verse memoirs! I was familiar with wonderful older verse memoirs by Lee Bennett Hopkins and a few others, but basically I expected Enchanted Air to languish alone on a librarian’s cart, with no one quite sure where to shelve it. Now, thanks to Brown Girl Dreaming’s National Book Award, I think verse memoirs will suddenly find their own place in the world. I chose poetry because free verse allowed me to transform memories into present tense, bringing childhood emotions back to life.
Already, Enchanted Air has garnered enormous praise. It’s a Junior Library Guild title and has earned three starred reviews. Your other books have won such prestigious awards as the Pura Belpré Medal, the Claudia Lewis Award, the Newbery Honor, the International Reading Association’s Children’s Book Award, the Américas Award, the Jane Addams Award, and the Lee Bennett Hopkins Honor, just to name a few.
How have you learned to deal with such acclaim? How do you set the possible pressure of such praise aside when working on something new?
Acclaim is wonderful when it happens, but life keeps me humble. I still receive plenty of manuscript rejections, especially for my biographical picture books about great Latino scientists who have been forgotten by history. As far as pressure, there’s nothing I can do to influence grownup reviewers and award committee members. All I can do is write from the heart, picturing my readers as children.
This is your fourth book to release this year. How do you handle the juggle while continuing to work on new projects?
Three picture books—Drum Dream Girl, Orangutanka, and The Sky Painter—were released within weeks of each other by sheer coincidence. I wrote them all in different years, but publication coincided simply because the illustration and book design process is so much slower and less predictable than the writing. Now I’m back to working on historical verse novels, with only an occasional burst of inspiration leading to another picture book idea.
Learn more about Margarita and her books at www.margaritaengle.com.
The post Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings by Margarita Engle appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.
Another Kind of Hurricane by Tamara Ellis Smith
In this stunning debut novel, two very different characters—a black boy who loses his home in Hurricane Katrina and a white boy in Vermont who loses his best friend in a tragic accident—come together to find healing.
A hurricane, a tragic death, two boys, one marble. How they intertwine is at the heart of this beautiful, poignant book. When ten-year-old Zavion loses his home in Hurricane Katrina, he and his father are forced to flee to Baton Rouge. And when Henry, a ten-year-old boy in northern Vermont, tragically loses his best friend, Wayne, he flees to ravaged New Orleans to help with hurricane relief efforts—and to search for a marble that was in the pocket of a pair of jeans donated to the Red Cross.
Rich with imagery and crackling with hope, this is the unforgettable story of how lives connect in unexpected, even magical, ways.
The idea for Another Kind of Hurricane came when my son—who was four at the time—asked me who would get his pair of pants. We were driving a few bags of clothing and food to the Hurricane Katrina Relief Effort. Of course I didn’t know, but the question stayed with me. I began to imagine who would get his pants—and then I began to actually IMAGINE who would get his pants. And I was off and running…
This was August, 2005, of course, and I had just begun my first semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I had arrived at VCFA knowing I was a picture book writer (note the assuredness of that verb: knowing!), and so that semester I wrote a picture book about a boy in Vermont who gave a pair of pants with a lucky marble in the pocket to a boy in New Orleans.
It was terrible. The picture book, not the idea. My advisor thought the idea would make a great novel—but I wasn’t a novelist, so that was the end of that story.
Except it wasn’t the end of that story—because I couldn’t get it, or the two boys, out of my head.
It took me a long time, but I wrote a novel. This novel. Ten years, 3 major rewrites, and about 25 drafts later, Another Kind of Hurricane has finally been born.
Like any good writer—I did my homework for this story. I read many articles and blogs. I interviewed people. I watched countless documentaries about Katrina. I did everything that I thought I should do. And I tried to do it respectfully – aware that this was an experience that was totally foreign to me.
As a Vermonter, I felt as though I knew—as best I could—what it had been like during those harrowing days during the hurricane. I felt emotionally connected to the incredible people who had survived such a tragic disaster and my heart was bursting with empathy. It was from this place that I wrote Another Kind of Hurricane.
And then in the fall of 2011, Tropical Storm Irene swept through my home state of Vermont, my town, my street and my home—and all of a sudden I was inside the novel in a way I had never, ever, ever imagined.
Life imitated Art.
My block was one of the epicenters of the storm, at least in our general area of Vermont. Two of my neighbors had the foundations of their houses collapse. One had water on the first floor of hers. Most of us had our basements flooded. The basement in my house was flooded. We lost our water heater and a pellet stove. We also lost our kids’ artwork, my manuscripts, bins of clothing, and many other belongings.
We were lucky—no one was hurt. And I know that what we experienced was only the smallest fraction of what folks went through in New Orleans. But the ordeal gave me new insight.
Here is what I know now: Flood water smells old. It smells like something decaying, like something that has been left out for too long, like a mix of oil and compost and mold. Flood silt is heavy. It sticks to everything it touches. I know what it feels like to walk down a block lined with more appliances than trees and more garbage than grass.
I also know what it feels like to have strangers offer to help, to not know that to do in the face of such kindness, to be overwhelmed but grateful, to hem and haw, and to finally say yes to it all. By crossing into my intimate space, these amazing people took on some of my actual grief and suffering. They helped me begin to transform and heal. Accepting help became entwined with growing an incredible sense of empowerment, liberation and connection. I am still struggling to express the magnitude of what happened to me, but in the end, these strangers and I—we became friends.
This is what happens between my characters, Henry and Zavion, in Another Kind of Hurricane.
I think the reviewer at Kirkus really got what I was hoping readers would take away from the story:
Elegant prose and emotional authenticity will make this title sing not only for those who have experienced tragedies, but for everyone who knows the magic that only true friendship can foster.
True friendship fosters magic. Yes. And sometimes true friendship comes from the most unlikely person, a person seemingly so different from you—and yet, in the end—you couldn’t be more the same.
Schwartz and Wade has kindly offered to give away a copy of Another Kind of Hurricane to one reader here today. Simply leave a comment below. The winner will be selected Wednesday, July 29. US residents only, please.
Tamara Ellis Smith earned her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Richmond, Vermont, with her family. This is her first novel. Visit her on the Web at tamaraellissmith.com.
The post Life and Art: Author Tamara Ellis Smith + Giveaway appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.
SCBWI-New Mexico’s second annual Enchantment Show took place earlier this month. The show celebrates the work between the illustrator and the author by flip-flopping the traditional creation process. Instead of the illustrator responding to an author’s words, authors are assigned an illustration and produce a page of writing in response.
I’ve talked here before about the importance of writing bits and pieces not meant for publication. Giving voice to a poem I would have never cooked up on my own was especially satisfying.
This year’s theme was Play. A jpeg of Alan F. Stacy’s “Moonlight Serenade” arrived in my inbox, a picture capturing southwestern animals making music under the light of the moon. I didn’t know who the illustrator was or what he’d called it. I wasn’t even sure about the animals he included. Was that a coyote or a wolf? A Skunk or a badger?
(See Alan reflected in the glass?)
An idea came to me. What if the animals played the stars into the sky each night, led by Badger on his violin? Here’s where things get fun. I called My poem “Starlight Serenade,” almost exactly what Alan named his picture.
When night is hush, the world below
takes upon moon’s silver glow,
awaits the magic that begins
as Badger lifts his violin.
A sparkling song trembles and swells
enchants the heavens with its spell,
invites the first star to join in
when Badger plays his violin.
The orchestra now
takes its place —
Wolf on his sax,
Bear thrumming bass.
The music builds,
calls stars to sing
as Rabbit grabs
his set of strings.
Clear notes pour
from one lone flute,
echo across the arid butte.
The night sky blooms, a burnished shine,
music and starlight intertwined.
Whispering to the sky’s deep hue,
a hint of light slips into view.
Note by note the music fades
as darkness shifts to azure day.
Across the firmament sun roams
and shadows stretch to evening gloam.
These foretell what’s always been
when Badger lifts his violin.
What a great collaborative experience the creative process can be!
The post Enchantment: Playing with Words and Pictures appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.
age range: 9-14
setting: Prince William Sound, Alaska
genre: survival; coming of age
A Junior Library Guild selection
“…a terrific thrill on the page.” — Kirkus Reviews
“Greci has taken a popular if somewhat shopworn theme of juvenile literature — being marooned — and given it new vitality. You needn’t be a kid to stay up late reading this one.” – Alaska Dispatch
“Surviving Bear Island is a heart-pounding adventure that both kids and adults will enjoy…It follows its hero through a brilliant coming-of-age the likes of which are unlikely to be found anywhere outside Alaska.” — Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
Please tell us about your book.
Surviving Bear Island is a coming of age wilderness survival story set in Prince William Sound, Alaska. It’s about a boy’s quest for survival with only a small survival kit in his pocket after he becomes separated from his father on an unpopulated island far from civilization.
What inspired you to write this story?
The inspiration for this story was two-fold. First, I am a wilderness fanatic. I love spending time in remote places that I’ve gotten to under my own power by paddling a boat or walking. Prince William Sound is a place I’ve spent a lot of time exploring over the last twenty-five years, and I love it there and I know it intimately. Second, for much of my teaching career I worked with struggling readers and writers. As I both designed writing exercises and chose engaging books for them to read in attempts to engage my students I became focused on writing a book that both enthusiastic and reluctant readers could relate to.
How did you approach the research process for your story?
In 1991, I went on my first sea kayaking trip, which was a nine-week, 500-mile journey in Prince William Sound on the South Central Alaska Coastline where Surviving Bear Island is set. Since then I have returned almost every year to paddle part of the Sound, doing trips ranging from one week to one month both solo and with friends.
On my wilderness trips I have always kept journals. When I decided to try to write a story set in Prince William Sound, my journal entries became much more detailed regarding what I was experiencing at both the sensory and emotional levels. On one trip my wife and I spent several days circumnavigating an island, and that island became the template for the fictional Bear Island in my story. I took very detailed setting notes and was able to use them, sometimes word for word, in parts of the story.
Without creating spoilers for people who may read Surviving Bear Island, many of the experiences that the main character has are inspired by experiences that I have had. Basically, I used my experiences as springboards for some of the trials that Tom faces in the story.
As I started to add new incidents not inspired directly by my experiences, I tried to experience or replicate what I was writing. For example, Tom has an emergency blanket that in damaged in a fire. For research, I burned part of an emergency blanket to see how it would respond to fire and it turned out to be quite different than how I imagined it. Instead of bursting into flames, it melted and made crackling noises.
What roadblocks did you run into when writing Surviving Bear Island?
The main roadblock I ran into when writing Surviving Bear Island was how to write a story with primarily one character and have it have authentic emotional depth and complexity. Early drafts of my story were very plot heavy and episodic. As the years went by and I wrote other stories where characters were interacting with each other, I developed my skills for exploring emotional depth, and also for writing in first person. I think those other manuscripts I wrote gave me the tools I needed to transform a single-character third-person narrative into a single-character first-person narrative that was much more character-driven and emotionally authentic.
What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?
Some topics my book touches on that could be utilized in the classroom include, self-sufficiency, courage, what it means to never give up, parent/child relationships, survival skills, emotional growth, coming to terms with things you can’t change, living life in the present moment, learning from observing animals, and learning about Alaska.
You can read more about Surviving Bear Island through the links below:
The post Classroom Connections: SURVIVING BEAR ISLAND by Paul Greci appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.
The only way I can write is to wander along with a story, then rewrite and rearrange and change it everywhere.
— Laura Ingalls Wilder
The post On Writing appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.
I’ve talked a lot here about my office space through the years. There was the post about my closet office back in Louisiana and the picture of my research spot in a nearby park. Here in Albuquerque, you’ve seen my office when we first moved in, the addition of my desk, a tour of my bookshelves, the bulletin board above my desk, the rubber rat on the desk itself, and the closet overhaul I had done in May.
While I don’t do the majority of my writing here (I still prefer the couch, the bed, or Starbucks), I love this space. There’s something about being surrounded by familiar books and inspiring words that makes me feel at home.
Last month I added in two more pieces of furniture, a secretary and chair from my parents, who have recently moved to town.
I bought some blue and white knobs and two yards of bird fabric at Hobby Lobby (since a certain sometimes-grubby puppy likes to sit nearby).
The desk as been in front of the window the last year or two, and while I loved being able to look outside, it could get pretty toasty in the summer and rather chilly in the winter. See the little lamp I’ve hooked onto the desk? It’s the one from my office closet days and makes things feel extra cozy in a way the overhead light just can’t.
Here’s a glimpse from the doorway.
And one when standing in front of the window.
Here’s the secretary all prettified.
Sara Zarr in her podcast talks about being “at home in your work”, an idea I really love. Having a welcoming space like this helps me find my way into the writing and all the other tasks that come with the writing life.
How does your work space influence your work?
The post Finding Home in Our Work Spaces appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.
Art is what happens when you dare to be who you really are, when what is most alive in you is offered as a gift to others. — Emily P. Freeman
Human, generous work, that might not work, that changes someone else for the better. — Seth Godin
If it is art, it is not for all, and if it is for all, it is not art. — Arnold Schoenberg
The post Definitions of Art appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.
I few months ago I linked to Kate Messner’s post on bullet journaling. She’s such an on-the-ball author (Kate has seven books coming out this year, I believe), I knew any organizational system she uses would be worth looking into. I found her explanation and examples of bullet journaling really insightful.
I started my own low-key version after reading her post. While I don’t list day to day events (I still use my calendar for that), I’ve found it helpful to have one place to stick all my notes — work related or not. Here’s a glimpse at what I’ve got down for May.
On the left I have notes about my son’s eighth-grade dance. Our church, which meets in my boys’ school, tries to give back throughout the year. One way we’re helping this time around is by decorating for the dance. It’s an 80s theme. Think Rubix cubes, fun movie posters, and Pac Man!
On the right is May at a glance. My current calendar is a weekly one, giving me plenty of space to write in daily tasks. But if I want to see the general flow of the month, I can’t. That’s why this overview is so handy.
Here’s my checklist for May, which I know will grow as the days pass. It’s life, it’s work, it’s big stuff and small. I’m working again on a manuscript I affectionately call Jasper. Though it’s not due back to my editor until August 10, I want to be sure to get my rhythm down now. I’ll check off each day I work and record the amount of time I’ve spent (my own version of a sticker chart).
I’m also deep in the middle of my Laura Ingalls Wilder class. Well, I’m actually a bit behind. Thankfully participants can finish at their own pace.
Over in the Wetlands releases in July (!!), so it’s time to start thinking about some guest blog posts as well as add to my Louisiana mailing list (my plan is to send postcards to the schools and libraries in the ten coastal parishes).
Then there’s that dance. The shelves in my office closet. A writing mentorship (I’m reading and responding to two picture book manuscripts a month for a local writing friend). A birthday sleepover. The end of school. An eighth-grade graduation. Other books I’d like to read. A piece of writing for SCBWI-NM’s Enchantment show. My calendar is great for the everyday, but I’m loving the bullet journal for fleshing it all out.
Anyone else out there bullet journaling?
The post Bullet Journaling My Way Through May appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.
age range: 10 and up
genre: contemporary middle grade
Filled with a delightful range of quirky characters and told with heart, the story also explores themes of family, friendship, and courage in its many forms. . . . It has something to offer for a wide-ranging audience. . . . Offering hope to those who struggle academically and demonstrating that a disability does not equal stupidity, this is as unique as its heroine.
— Booklist, STARRED REVIEW
Mullaly Hunt again paints a nuanced portrayal of a sensitive, smart girl struggling with circumstances beyond her control. . . . Ally’s raw pain and depression are vividly rendered, while the diverse supporting cast feels fully developed. . . . Mr. Daniels is an inspirational educator whose warmth radiates off the page. Best of all, Mullaly Hunt eschews the unrealistic feel-good ending for one with hard work and small changes. Ally’s journey is heartwarming but refreshingly devoid of schmaltz.
— School Library Journal, STARRED REVIEW
Please tell us about your book.
Fish in a Tree is about sixth-grader, Ally Nickerson, who misbehaves in school to hide the fact that she struggles with reading and writing. Since her dad is in the military, she has moved from school to school; this has helped her keep her secret. Having moved so often, she has not had to opportunity to forge strong friendships as well – until she meets Kesiha and Albert.
It is also very much a school story with eight different student personalities interacting with (sometimes crashing into) each other and their teacher Mr. Daniels.
What inspired you to write this story?
Well, my own life inspired the story. Although I’ve never been tested for dyslexia, I have been suspicious that I have at least a touch of it. I was in the lowest reading group in grades one through six. Mr. Daniels is based on my sixth grade teacher Mr. Christy. I realized about halfway through writing it that Fish in a Tree is a love letter to him and all teachers like him.
I have no doubt that Mr. Christy saved me. I came into sixth grade wondering what would be come of me and left sixth grade with a laser focus on becoming a teacher and helping kids like he helped me. He set a high expectations. Even as a child I knew this was a high compliment and I tried very hard to reach every bar he set for me. He completely changed my perception of myself in on year – a powerful transformation. The man was amazing.
Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching?
This book required a lot of research, actually. I had the opportunity to speak with some people who have dyslexia and were not helped until they were older. Unfortunately, even with all the screening in the early grades, kids still slip through the cracks until sixth grade or higher. Being a teacher I know that it is a very difficult job. When a child is very bright, they can often compensate very well and mask their difficulties. Ally Nickerson is such a child.
I also had to do a lot of research for Albert. He is a walking encyclopedia but that took hours of finding facts that were not only pertinent but interesting as well.
What are some special challenges associated with writing contemporary middle grade fiction?
I think one of the special challenges associated with writing contemporary middle grade are authenticity. At least for me. It takes courage to be honest but middle grade readers respond very well to it – in fact readers of all ages do.
So, as the writer we have to crawl into our own basement sometimes in order to get it on the page. Both of the books that I have written make me feel very vulnerable in this regard. They’re honest. And they are me. The vulnerability was difficult at first but now I see it as a gift and I’m grateful to be able to share those aspects of myself with readers.
What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?
The topics my book touches upon that make it a perfect fit for the classroom are family life, love of siblings, being different is a gift, bullying in the sense that we can’t control the bully’s behavior but we can control how we respond to it, a family struggling financially, and how learning disabilities are not necessarily disabilities – just a different way of learning.
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You have to give yourself permission to [write badly] because you can’t expect to write regularly and always write well.
— Jennifer Egan
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Jeannie Mobley writes middle grade and YA fiction. Her debut novel, KATERINA’S WISH (Margaret K. McElderry Books), won the 2013 Colorado Book Award, is on the 2014-2015 William Allen White Award Master List, and represented Colorado at the 2013 National Book Festival. Her second novel, SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS, released September 2, 2014. When not writing or reading fiction, Jeannie is a mother, wife, lover of critters, and an anthropology professor at Front Range Community College, where she teaches a variety of classes on cultures past and present. You can visit her at www.jeanniemobley.com.
What typically comes first for you: a character? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?
I tend to start with big ideas–themes or threads that I then build a story around. In Katerina’s Wish, I started with ideas about what constitutes “magic” and to what extent our own attitudes shape our luck in the world. In my newest book, Searching for Silverheels, I was interested in two varying views on a local legend, and how either way, the character could be seen as a “strong woman.” That got me thinking about what really constitutes strength and womanhood, and it went from there. My next step is matching the setting and historical time period to my idea.
What’s your favorite thing about writing historical fiction?
The fact that I can find historical settings to focus the lens on topics, themes, or social issues. For example, in Searching for Silverheels, I chose World War I to explore the issues surrounding strong women, because women are called to do a wider range of things in wartime than at other times. And World War I had the unique additional feature of the clash between President Wilson and the Women’s Suffragist Movement. Of course, I could tell a story about all the ways women are strong in any place or time, but I like historical fiction because I can pick times and places to make the issues much more intense.
What kinds of sources do you use?
I use different sources at different points in my research. I have a background in history and historical research, so that eliminates much of the initial work I might otherwise have to do. But, in the early stages of formulating an idea or picking a time period, I rely heavily on informational websites and textbooks–the kind of sources that give broad overviews of a topic or time period.
My next step is to create ideas for world building–getting the local setting, the voice, and the details of ordinary life right. This involves reading sources from the era–newspapers, books, reports–anything that gives me a sense of how people wrote or talked. I also look at oral histories that give details of life. Since I write for kids, I especially like oral histories in which people are remembering back to their childhood, because those give me details about what life was like for kids, which is often lacking from history books.
I also love to look at historic photographs for background details, and especially ones that evoke other senses (like the smoke boiling from chimneys in turn-of-the-century coal camps. I try to think about how that must have smelled, how gritty the air must have felt, how the laundry drying on the line must have taken on that smoke.).
There are many good sources for all of these things, but since my work so far has been centered in Colorado, I’ve found the Western History Archives at the Denver Public Library to be a wonderful source of photographs, www.coloradonewspapers.org to be a great place to read for voice, and a variety of sources of oral history, the most extensive being the National Archive oral history project, which has many recordings online that let you hear the actual voice of the teller, as well as the details.
How long do you typically research before beginning to draft?
Not long, or even at all. If I’m working with a new place or era with which I’m not familiar, I might spend a few hours doing background research, and a few more listening or reading for voice. I may read a novel written in the era or watch a movie set in the area (not really research–more just a good excuse to read a book or watch a movie.) But mostly, the story is most important to me in the first draft, and it guides me as to what details I need to find. So I research as I write the first draft. For example, in my current WiP, I had a conversation going on between the front seat and back seat of a car in 1930. I had a character glance in the rearview mirror to see the people in the back, and realized that I don’t know for sure when the rear-view mirror became standard in vehicles. So, I made a note in the margin–“would the car have a rearview mirror?” and when I finished writing the scene, I stopped to look it up.
What’s one of the most interesting things you’ve learned while researching?
I tend to love (and get lost in) the quirky details, but also the strange connections. So, I lost a whole day one time on the history of toilets on trains. Fascinating, if you go in for that kind of thing. And I am often stunned by connections that sometimes make me feel like I’m channeling instead of creating. In my newest book, Searching for Silverheels, I needed a last name for a character. At the time, my son was in high school, so he was getting recruitment mail for colleges. There was an envelope sitting on the table from Stanford University. I looked at it, changed it from Stanford to Sanford, and made it the kid’s last name. Later, while doing some back-up research on the Silverheels legend, I learned that one of the “eye witness” stories that claims to know the truth about the legend is in a manuscript at the Colorado Historical Society, written by a man named Sanford. The Sanford in my story is searching out an eye witness, just as the real Sanford was. So, I adjusted the story so that my fictional Sanford hears the same story that the real Sanford heard. But the names, that was just a crazy coincidence that sent a chill up my spine when it happened.
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?
In Katerina’s Wish, I was deliberately vague and never named the coal camp in which the main characters live. I did this because I wanted to avoid the political implications of setting the story in the place where one of the major battles of labor union history took place. Many readers have made the connection, which is fine, but I didn’t want to imply that my characters were directly part of a movement.
On the other hand, in Searching for Silverheels, I did want to connect my suffragist to the real women’s suffrage movement, so I set the story in the exact month and year when the members of the National Women’s Party were arrested at the White House, and that arrest is a catalyst for setting up the climax of my story. I did, however, create some fictional responses to that event that I don’t think really happened. I am always careful to create an author’s note that clarifies the real from the fictional, but I also think that some of the fun for readers of historical fiction can be looking up the truth themselves, and seeing where the author has been honest and where she’s told lies.
Why is historical fiction important?
I think historical fiction has the opportunity to give kids a passion or curiosity about the past. I think a lot of people are turned off by the idea of “history” because they see it as the dull retelling of a bunch of boring dates about boring politicians. It took me years to figure out that people saw history that way, because for me, history was always about story. I grew up in the west where I could explore old cabins and travel roads that used to be railroads or wagon trails, and to me, that continuation of the past, as a compilation of extraordinary stories about ordinary people, is what history has always been about. Hopefully, historical fiction can make kids (or adults) see history that way too.
The post Straight From the Source: Author Jeannie Mobley on Writing Historical Fiction appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.
I’m taking my blog sabbath a month earlier than I usually do. This is a practice I started four years ago, and it’s something that refreshes and resets me in more ways than I know how to explain. In addition to the blog, I will also be off social media.
I’ve chosen June over July this year for a couple of reasons. First, I’m on deadline this summer. These early weeks, when I’m finding my way back into my manuscript, feel especially important. I don’t need any other computer time vying for my attention.
Second, we have a lot of family things going on next month. My boys are home from school. My parents are moving back to town. My husband and I are going on a cruise to celebrate our twentieth anniversary. This is a perfect time to step away.
Finally, I have a book coming out in July, and I want to be here to share its story.
I’ve scheduled some posts to re-run — a “new” one each week — that I hope will interest you. Enjoy your summer, friends! I’ll see you again soon.
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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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