Thursday, June 28, 2007

My First Memory, in Verse

Recently I posted my earliest memory and invited fellow readers and bloggers to do the same. A few folks took me up on it, and one of them upped the ante by suggesting that we also write a fictionalized version.

One problem: My first memory occurred when I was two years old, and any story in which the main character is two will have to be a picture book. I don't do picture books. I have great respect ... nay, awe ... for those who can write good PBs. I cannot.

Nonetheless, never one to shrink from a challenge, I've taken a stab at this and written a rhyming picture book, complete with talking animals. Actually, it came out more like a kids' rap song. For maximum effect, you may wish to read it while imagining a beat box in the background.

Linda Lou Goes to the Zoo

There once was a girl named Linda Lou.
She wasn’t four, she wasn’t three, she was only two
When she went with her mom and her sisters to the zoo.
For a tour that was led by a lady in blue.
(A lady in blue. Dressed all in blue.)

They saw some little critters all covered in fur.
The woman of the cloth didn’t know what they were.
In fact, her proclamation created quite a stir.
“Look,” she said. “Seals!” Um, yeah … sure.
(Um, yeah … sure. I mean … der.)

One of the animals sat up and gave a stare.
“We’re otters, silly nun, the seals are over there.”
And with that, Linda Lou, our heroine so fair
Turned redder than the shade of a Barlett pear.
(A Barlett pear. A juicy red pear.)

The poor, flustered nun had a horrified look.
Her mouth turned down and her hands, they shook.
Linda Lou hid her face and a deep breath took
And said, “Let me out of this picture book.”
(This picture book. Stupid picture book.)

Author's note: To those editors out there who may be reading this, feel free to leave your contact info in the comments section. And let the bidding wars begin!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

13 Reasons Why

Wow. Where to start? I’ve just finished reading my Advance Reading Copy of Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why.

The voice, the plotting, the pacing, the writing are every bit as compelling as I’d expected and hoped. In other words, it’s a great read.

But that’s not The Thing.

The Thing about this book is how skillfully it filters the high school experience through the perceptions of a suicidal teen.

Jay depicts the story of Hannah Baker with an awful honesty. We learn of her problems, her pain and her ultimate despair through her suicide “note,” a 13-part collection of audiotapes. We get a second perspective through the thoughts of Clay Jensen, a classmate of Hannah who has received the tapes.

This dual viewpoint brings a fascinating complexity to the story. We are reminded that in high school, perhaps more than anywhere else, perception is reality.

For example, how could a classroom note viewed by Clay and others as a silly, innocent joke send Hannah down a path of desolation? Who’s right? Does it matter?

If Clay had stood up for Hannah when others were being unkind, or if he had reached out to her at some point to let her know he cared, would she still be alive?

The book manages to raise these difficult questions without blaming the survivors, without excusing Hannah for making the ultimate decision to end her own life.

Last night, partway through reading the book, I saw a report on a rash of suicides in Ireland. There has been some speculation that these deaths are part of a suicide pact, and that there may be more to come. What takes people to such depths? How can we as individuals and as a society intervene?

13 Reasons Why reminds us that the way we treat each other does matter.

I think Jay’s book could become a top seller because of its high-concept hook. It could become the Blair Witch Project of YA novels, where word of mouth among teens sends kids flocking to the bookstores to see what all the fuss is about.

But even more important, the book could lead some of those teens to reach out to friends or classmates they sense might need help, or to seek help for themselves.

Saturday, June 23, 2007


OK, so I'd planned to spend most of my day walking around the ALA Exhibit Hall looking at all the books, and especially the children's books, but then my day gets a little crazy and kind of gets away from me and before I know it, it's 2 p.m. and I'm just getting on Metro and I know I have to leave the Expo by 4:30 because I need to get up to Frederick tonight for my nieces' dance recital and so I'm pretty bummed, but then I walk in and my heart can hardly stand it, because there are three huge exhibit halls filled with aisle after aisle after aisle of books!

And wait, cause that's not the best part.

So I go to the Simon and Schuster booth because I want to make sure I know where it is because at 4:00, I want to quick meet Gretchen Moran Laskas so she can sign my copy of The Miner's Daughter before I leave (which she later did, and she was a total sweetheart and it turns out we have something in common because we both hate to have our pictures taken, not that I remembered my camera anyway, dagnabbit), and so I find the Simon and Schuster booth right away, and who should be signing books when I get there but Susan Patron AND Matt Phelan and so even though I already own and have read The Higher Power of Lucky, I buy another copy and hey, it's only $10 and I get it signed by the author and illustrator, so how cool is that.

But wait, cause that part was good but it's not the best part.

So I walk over to the Random House booth and I just happen to get there when Judy Blume is doing her signing and so I get in line and get not one but two books signed by her, because my sister (the mother of the aforementioned nieces) is an elementary school teacher and loves Judy Blume and OMG you can get paperback copies of Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret for just $3 and have her sign them right in front of your face!

And that was really, really, really cool, but even that isn't the best part.

So then I head over to the Penguin Booth and I'm looking for one book in particular, The Qwikpick Adventure Society by Sam Riddleburger, which came out in May and I'd preordered at my local Borders but they still haven't contacted me about it and so it occurs to me that maybe I can get it here for like a buck because they seem to be sellling everything so darn cheap, but I don't see the book at the booth, so then I decide to start at the beginning of the display and look at every single book in case I'm missing it and so I'm walking down the row and all of a sudden I'm staring at the cover of 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher!

Let me repeat that part in case you missed it: All of a sudden it's as if a hole has opened up in the convention center ceiling and a shaft of bright light is shining on this one book and I have to shade my eyes and squint but it turns out I'm staring at the cover of 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher!

And I'm like, OMG, I wasn't even thinking about this book because it's not out yet and here in front of me is an Advance Reading Copy! It says on the cover "Not for Sale" and I see just the one display copy so I'm not really sure what the protocol is, though it occurs to me for a split second that I could walk away with it and no one would notice but I know that would be wrong, so wrong, so I take it up to the counter and ask if there is any way I can buy it, and they tell me they don't sell those, they give them away, and my heart skips like five beats and I ask if I can take it and they ask where I found it, so I admit that it was their display copy and they tell me I can't take it.

So then the nice lady offers to go over and look under the table to see if she has any more and so I'm watching her and she peers up and shakes her head and I mouth "no?" to her and she must see the look of desperation in my eyes because she calls me over and asks in a conspiratorial tone where I picked it up and so for a second I think maybe she's going to let me keep it but then she takes it out of my hands and puts it back on the shelf and I am about to lose all hope when she leans toward me and whispers, "I have a copy in my bag. I'm going to give you my personal copy." And I don't know what I said to her at that point, but it was something along the lines of "I love you," or "You're my hero" or "Tell me your name so I can name my firstborn after you."

And THAT was the best part of my brief but amazing visit to ALA!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Detecting the Acceptable Verbiage

As writers, we delight in finding just the right words to bring our ideas to life on the page. A few thoughts on how we can do this:

Use a thesaurus. But do so with caution. A thesaurus may throw up a medley of synonyms for you to elect amongst, but many of these expressions will be unfortunate.

Put an unusual twist on a common phrase. Think outside the cliché. (OK, so I need to work on that one.)

Stay true to the voice of the work. Each word, each phrase, each sentence should fit your voice. The dialog should fit your characters. Read your manuscript aloud so you can feel the rhythm of your words.

Perform a search for overused words. We all have them … mine are “just” and “but.” They’re all over my manuscripts. With throw-away words such as these, you can often just eliminate the words, but in other cases, you may need to find appropriate substitutes. (See what I mean about “just” and “but”?)

Other ideas for finding the perfect words?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

It’s a Start …

… the first in an occasional series of posts where we take a look at the first line (or so) of randomly selected children’s books. The only thing these books have in common is that I happen to have them on my shelves.

Disclaimer: All commentary is solely the opinion of the author of this blog and is therefore worth no more than the paper it’s written on. Conflicting opinions most welcome in the comments section.

It is a sad and shocking fact of my young life that my parents named me Mary Elizabeth Cep by mistake. I’ve known since I was five that my true name is Lola. Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, by Dyan Sheldon.

Love this. Girl’s got voice! The conflict here is sort of silly, but we know we’re in for a fun story. Stars: ****

The sun sets in the west (just about everyone knows that), but Sunset Towers faced east. Strange! The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin.

An odd beginning for an odd story. I don’t like having parentheses in the first sentence, and having the immediate conflict center around directionals is a little bizarre. But, we sense right away that something is amiss at Sunset Towers. And this is one of my favorite books of all time, so…. Stars: ***

”Where’s Papa going with that ax?” Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White.

Widely recognized as one of the greatest opening lines of all time … and for good reason. Stars: *****

My sister Mary Beth was a song reader. The Song Reader, by Lisa Tucker.

Um, OK. I have no idea what that means. Hmm. Think I’ll keep reading. Stars: ****

Harriet was trying to explain to Sport how to play Town. Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh.

Intriguing, but a little confusing, especially since “Sport” is an odd name for a boy and “Town” is an odd name for a game. But again, one of my favorite books in the world. Stars: ***

Your thoughts?

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Re: Me 2

Well, that first meme was so fun, I've decided to try another. In fact, I'm starting my own. (They have to start somewhere, right?)

The rules for My First Memory meme are as follows: Record your earliest memory. Everyone who reads this blog is hereby tagged. You can tag people in a similar fashion, or in whatever way you prefer. Or if you hate tagging people, you don't have to tag anyone. It's your call.

My First Memory
My earliest memory is of a trip to the Philadelphia Zoo. My sisters, who were in the first and second grades at St. Mary's Catholic School, went to the zoo for their class trip, and my mother had volunteered to accompany them as a chaperone.

When we arrived at the aquatic exhibit, one of the nuns pointed to a group of adorable little animals playing on the rocks. "How cute," she said. "Look at the seals."

As the students all gathered around to ooh and aah, Mom pulled me aside and pointed toward a group of much larger creatures. "Those are the seals," she whispered. "The little ones are otters."

A few moments later, the nun came over to us. "What are those?" she asked.

Mom explained that these were the seals, and the others were in fact otters.

I just stood there, mortified for the poor, ignorant nun.

So that's it ... my first memory is of being embarrassed for someone else. This is why I can't watch Borat for more than five minutes without hiding my face behind a pillow and squirming.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Re: Me

Jay Asher of The Disco Mermaids has tagged me for my blog’s first ever meme! The ground rules:

Each player lists 8 facts/habits about themselves. The rules of the game are posted at the beginning before those facts/habits are listed. At the end of the post, the player then tags 8 people and posts their names, then goes to their blogs and leaves them a comment, letting them know that they have been tagged and asking them to read your blog.

Coming up with eight things was harder than I expected. And I’m not even sure I know eight people, so the tagging part won’t exactly be a cakewalk either.

Anyway, here goes ... very random:

1. A swarm of wasps attacked me during my 12th birthday party. I later threw up my dinner.

2. I love puzzles … crosswords, acrostics, cryptograms, sudoku ….

3. I once spent the night in the VIP quarters at Fort Leavenworth military prison.

4. I once held up Colin Powell at airport security (pre 9/11) because my belt set the alarm off and the security guy kept sending me back through. When we finally realized Powell was standing and waiting patiently behind me, we let him through.

5. I have observed two embalmings.

6. I went to 12 years of Catholic school. Though I made my share of mischief in high school, the most trouble I ever got into was for wearing the wrong socks. (They were a few shades lighter than our official hunter-green knee-highs, and they had a little rose on each ankle … horrors!).

7. If I had to do it all over again, I would totally go back to Catholic school. And I would totally wear those socks. I loved those socks! (Of course, this time, I'd avoid Mr. Trimble's hallway.)

8. I am ridiculously undomestic, except in early June, when I become a cherry-pitting, pie-baking maniac using sour cherries from the tree in our backyard. (In fact, I am baking our last pie of the season as I write this.)

Now I’m off to visit a few of my favorite blogs to try to do some tagging!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

What’s in a Name?

Choosing characters’ names comes easily for me. In fact, most of my characters somehow already have names when I first imagine them. Rarely do I have to think about it.

Some writers do struggle with selecting just the right name, and I can understand that. We as a society and as individuals associate certain characteristics with certain names.

What type of character would have the name Tiffany? What about Agnes? Brittany? Jane? Grace?

Chances are, each of these names invoked an image in your mind. Want to know what a cross-section of people think about the name of one of your characters? Check out Behind the Name. Find the name in question and click on “ratings.” You’ll see how many people rated that name and what they think of it in a variety of categories.

I tried this for my main character, whose name is Liz.

Here's how the 23 people who rated “Liz” feel about the name:

Good Name: 63% - Bad Name: 37%
Feminine: 85% - Masculine: 15%
Modern: 67% - Classic: 33%
Youthful: 76% - Mature: 24%
Informal: 89% - Formal: 11%
Common: 57% - Upperclass: 43%
Urban: 57% - Natural: 43%
Devious: 59% - Wholesome: 41%
Strong: 57% - Delicate: 43%
Refined: 50% - Rough: 50%
Strange: 67% - Boring: 33%
Simple: 67% - Complex: 33%
Comedic: 70% - Serious: 30%
Nerdy: 50% - Unintellectual: 50%

Many of these were tossups. Of those that had wider margins, I’d say my Liz fits the categories pretty well.

BTW, I checked the ratings for Linda … when did my name cross over into Mature (63%) vs. Youthful (37%)? Boo hoo!

How do you select your characters’ names? And what do people think about them?

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Power of Place

Not long ago, my name was drawn for a door prize at an SCBWI event. From a table filled with dozens of literary goodies, I selected a book I’d had my eye on all weekend: The Miner’s Daughter by Gretchen Moran Laskas.

I had seen Gretchen’s helpful, thoughtful posts on writing and publishing on a couple of children’s lit message boards and felt certain her novel would be a terrific read.

It is. The story of Willa, a teen who lives in a West Virginia coal mine town during the Great Depression, the book has beautifully drawn characters and a strong voice that manages to be simultaneously plain-spoken and lyrical.

What strikes me most about The Miner’s Daughter, though, is the setting, the powerful sense of place and time Gretchen invokes for the reader.

How does she do it? And what can we as writers learn from her technique?

The book is narrated from a close third-person point of view, a tricky format for describing setting. Most people don’t go around reflecting on their everyday surroundings. Would Willa think about her family’s poverty and the depressed condition of her town? To an extent. But for the most part, she’d take these things for granted. She wouldn’t elaborate on, and in fact might not even realize, the depths of their poverty and the comforts they lack.

It is vital, however, for the reader to understand the effects of the Depression on Willa and her family. Gretchen effectively resolves this by setting up numerous scenes that provide a contrast to Willa’s usual surroundings.

For example, in chapter two, Willa follows her brother to the top of the mountain they live on and looks down the other side: Here, the earth had been left as it had always been. There was no smoldering slag pile; no houses stacked one on top of the other like ladder rungs.

We are given a window into Willa’s world through her perception of what lies outside that world.

Gretchen uses a literal window in chapter three, when Willa goes to the town doctor’s home to seek help for her pregnant mother: Through the large picture window, Willa could see the doctor and his wife sitting down to supper. Tall white candles burned, making the silver cutlery and white china sparkle. Worried as she was, Willa could only stare at the beauty of the table. She stood there … looking first at the roasted chicken and stuffing, and then at the short, lacy dress the doctor’s wife wore.

As a final example (and there are many), Gretchen uses a fictional world to draw a contrast. In chapter seven, Willa and a missionary who has come to town read Little Women together: So much of the world of Little Women was strange to Willa. “You mean you never had presents at Christmas?” Miss Grace asked after they read a passage about the March girls finding gifts beneath their pillows. Willa shook her head.

Setting is for me one of the most difficult elements of writing. I admire Gretchen’s technique of depicting the main character’s reactions to contrasting surroundings as a way to illuminate her everyday existence.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Taking the Wheel

The road to publication is lined with stoplights. Long stoplights. Stoplights that are so long you start to wonder whether they might be forever stuck on red.

It often takes years between the time a writer finishes a novel and the time it appears on the shelves. In between, there is a lot of waiting and wondering. Will the agent you queried agree to represent you? Will the publishing house your agent approached offer to buy your manuscript? What types of revisions will the editor suggest? What will the cover art look like? When will the publication date be? What type of promotion will the publisher launch to attract readers?

Tom Petty says, “The waiting is the hardest part.” He’s half right. In publishing, the waiting and the wondering are both excruciating. Once that manuscript leaves your hands, there is nothing you can do but hope others out there will appreciate it.

What’s a control freak to do?

For sanity’s sake, I have to try to accept the fact that I can’t change the stoplights, and instead concentrate on those parts of the journey I can control.

Here are some things we as writers can control:

Our writing. There is no guarantee that any of our books will be published. But the best chance we have to reach that goal is to write the best books we possibly can. If we send out manuscripts that aren’t quite ready, we relinquish one of the few areas in which we have control. We place our books' fate into other people’s hands before we have done all we can to help them succeed.

Our understanding of the craft and of the market. With all the writing and publishing classes, books, magazines, messages boards, list serves, blogs and Web sites out there, it is easier than ever to educate ourselves on craft and the market.

Our professionalism. Publishing is a business, and agents and editors are businesspeople. We can demonstrate our commitment to our writing careers by communicating with them in a professional way.

Our connections. Attending conferences and workshops, participating in online chats and message boards, commenting on fellow writers’ blogs, attending book signings and readings … these are all terrific ways of networking within the writing and publishing communities, and one never knows where one of these connections might lead. And while it is great to attend a conference or a workshop, it's even better to volunteer to help out. Connections formed behind the scenes can be invaluable.

British writer Rodney Collin said: "One has to wait without impatience for what should come, and yet at the same time do everything within one's power as though one were impatient and as though one were solely responsible."

Bottom line: The more I attend to the things I can control, the better I feel about the things I can’t.

Update: For some terrific additions to these points, check out Gail Maki Wilson's blog entry responding to this post. Appreciate your take on this, Gail!

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

100 Words A Day: First Month's Report

One month ago, my friend Heather and I decided to take on our "100 Words a Day" challenge. So how's it going?

Here are some lessons learned:

1. 100 words is nothing. I find I write 200-300 words before I even realize I've started. Which is fine ... in fact, it's kind of the point. By committing to write 100 words, we're not committing to writing a a whole chapter each day, nor a whole page nor even a whole paragraph. We are simply committing to writing something every day. (BTW, this post is now just over 100 words ... see how quickly that went?)

2. Writing on demand doesn't diminish the quality of my writing. This one has surprised me. Like many writers, I like to wait for the muse to strike, the creative juices to flow and the stars to align themselves just right before I sit down to compose my masterpiece. Turns out, none of that actually affects the quality of my work. Even though some days my muse is nowhere to be found and my creative juices have formed a sticky, smelly mess on my mind's floor, my writing comes out pretty much the same as ever. Some is good, some is lame-o, but overall it's not much affected by my mindset.

3. Everyone should have a writing partner who is not a critique partner. Each night, Heather and I listen to each other's 100 words. We don't evaluate them. We don't suggest revisions. We don't ask where the story is going or why it's going there. We just listen and congratulate each other on having written. Nice.

Hello, Goodbye (Come Back Soon!)

Thanks for stopping by Just Like the Nut. Now leave!

Go check out these sites:

(1) Leslie Pietrzyk's blog, where she has posted a poem I wrote about her recent discussion on dialog. (The poem is supposed to be tongue-in-cheek ... hope it comes off that way!)

(2) The Disco Mermaids blog, where Jay, Robin and Eve are giving away a free registration to the SCBWI conference this summer! Scroll down a bit for the contest, and good luck!


Monday, June 4, 2007

She's Like a Rainbow*

As a huge Alice Hoffman fan, I was thrilled to hear her speak a couple of years ago at a book reading and signing in Arlington, VA. Something she said about her writing has stuck with me: She associates each of her books with a specific color. This is not something she sets out to do, but as she writes, she sees the story, setting and characters develop around that color, and she finds she subconsciously weaves shades and hues of it into the novel.

I've since had two critique partners who are using color as a thematic device within their novels. This fascinates me, because it is so unlike the way I perceive the world. I have a tremendous appreciation for colors, but basically just as colors. I don't tend to associate them with intangibles such as personalities or emotions or concepts.

In an effort to become more Alice Hoffmanesque (a girl can dream, can't she?), I decided to figure out the color of my main character.

How to answer this complex and profound question?

As I'm sure Alice herself would have done if she'd only thought of it first, I consulted

In addition to being fun and helping me get to know my sleuth better, the site's "What Color Are You?" quiz gave an interesting assessment of her: You are BLUE. You give your love and friendship unconditionally. You enjoy long, thoughtful conversations rich in philosophy and spirituality. You are very loyal and intuitive.

If I were to do this on my own and pick a color to attribute to her, I probably would go with Yellow. I think of Yellow as friendly, joyful, warm and easy-going. And not frivolous or silly.

(BTW, I took the test for myself as well. I'm Green: You are a very calm and contemplative person. Others are drawn to your peaceful, nurturing nature.)

What color is your character?

* Points if you can tell who I stole the title of today's post from.

UPDATE: My friend Heather tells me she took the quiz and is Yellow! So what does QuizMeme have to say about Yellow people? That they are smart and perceptive, and have a good sense of humor. My MC is all of the above (what kind of sleuth would she be otherwise?). So, Yellow it is. And Blue. Which combine to make Green. Which is me. Hmm. Interesting.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Can We Talk?

Last night, I attended a terrific program run by the Northern Virginia Writers, which is a committee of The Writer's Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Our speaker was Leslie Pietrzyk, author of "A Year and a Day" and "Pears on a Willow Tree."

Leslie shared nine secrets for writing terrific dialog. A fantastic presentation!

I'd like to discuss one "secret" that I think a lot of writers struggle with: effective dialog tags. Leslie and other instructors have taught me a couple of pointers worth sharing:

1. Keep it simple. It's tempting to tag our dialog with Ann murmured, or Bob snarled, but 99 times out of 100, it's better to simply use Ann said or Bob said. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, you want to let your dialog speak for itself (punny!). The words your character speaks, the tone of the scene and the actions your character takes should convey his/her mood. If they don't, you need to take a look at how to make the dialog and the scene stronger, without relying on descriptive tags. Second, readers tend to almost skip over the words "Ann said" and "Bob said" and read the dialog straight through, like a conversation, which of course is what you want. The tags allow them to keep track of who is talking, but they don't interfere with the flow the way "murmured" and "snarled" might.

2. Look for opportunities to omit the tag and instead describe an action. For example, you can write, "I'm hungry," Ann said. Or you can write, Ann picked up the menu. "I'm hungry." Or even, "I'm hungry." Ann picked up the menu and turned straight to the dessert section. The second option offers a couple of advantages over the first: It includes an action that helps move the scene forward, and it provides a visual to bring the reader into the scene. The third option does both of these things and goes one step further to reveal something about the character. When you find yourself writing "he said," "she said" over and over, try injecting some action for variety and effect.