Monday, July 30, 2007

Sure Beats Homer

I've Simpsonized my husband:

He looks kinda cute as a Simpson, I must say.

(Thanks to Kevin over at The Crack Up for turning me on to this.)

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Blasting Through the Block

It's enough to make you want to quit.

Writer's block. I don't get it often, but when I do, it can shut me down for weeks at a time. I am (I hope!) coming out of a bout of it right now.

Where does this dreaded phenomenon come from? For me, I think it has one of three origins: Either (1) something isn't working with my manuscript and I can't figure out what, (2) I don't know where to go next with my manuscript or (3) I know where to go but I can't figure out how to get there. (My most recent struggle was a lovely combination of both numbers 1 and 3.)

Many writers hit a block and do quit. They give up writing altogether, or they move on to a new project -- one with shiny new possibilities and no pesky problems -- never to return to give themselves a chance to break through.

But breaking through blocks is part of both the craft and the business of writing. It leads to growth, improvement ... and finished manuscripts. It's hard and it stinks, but it must be done.

The question becomes, how? For me, it means putting my work aside for a while and focusing on other areas of my life, then returning to the manuscript and asking some of the Big Questions: What is this story about? What do I want readers to take away from it? Does what I've written so far support that? What can be cut or added to bring out the heart of my story better? And how do I proceed from here to make sure I am remaining true to my story?

Thomas Edison once said: "Nearly every man who develops an idea works at it up to the point where it looks impossible, and then gets discouraged. That's not the place to become discouraged."

Edison reportedly failed 10,000 times before he made the breakthrough that gave us all light to read by. He clearly was not only a genius, but also wise.

How do you overcome writer's block?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

It's a Start ... (Part II)

Time once again for "It's a Start," where we take a look at the first sentence (or so) of five kids books randomly selected from my bookshelves. (You can check out the first edition here.) (Note: Maximum number of stars = 5.)

"Brad? Brad Stanislowski? Did you hear me?" / My pencil freezes mid-doodle. Funerals & Fly Fishing, by Mary Barter

Uh oh, someone's in trouble. Great way to start a book! I also like the strong verb, "freezes," and the fact that she managed to get in two fun words right off the bat: "Stanislowski" and "mid-doodle." Stars: ****

My dad's relatives live in Tennessee. Once, on a trip, we stopped in Bristol for lunch. Alice on Her Way, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

Frankly, not much to work with here. But, hey, it's Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. Guess when you have the creds, you can relax those "first-line-must-knock-the-editor's-socks-off" standards. (The rest of the book IS terrific, BTW). Stars: *

My name is Dovey Coe, and I reckon it don't matter if you like me or not. Dovey Coe, by Frances O'Roark Dowell

This has a strong voice, and it raises the question: Why wouldn't we like you? Stars: ****

I hate my father. I hate school. I hate being fat. I hate my principal because he wanted to fire Ms. Finney, my English teacher. The Cat Ate My Gymsuit, by Paula Danziger

OK! Lots of conflict here! The potential danger with this beginning is that the reader might start off disliking a protagonist that seems to hate everyone and everything ... but note that Danziger cleverly hints at the fact that she must like at least one person, Ms. Finney. Makes you want to know why, doesn't it? Stars: ****

If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. A Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony Snicket

Sure to become a classic. This one breaks all the rules: gives away something about the ending ... addresses the reader in second person ... invites the reader to put the book down, for crying out loud! Gotta love it. Stars: *****

Your thoughts?

Friday, July 20, 2007

The Great Adventure

We are all familiar with the Adventure Story. The protagonist embarks on a quest for something important: truth, answers to life’s big questions, perhaps even salvation.

Throughout the hero’s epic journey, he or she encounters many obstacles and overcomes deep-rooted doubts and fears, leading to personal growth and self discovery. These tales frequently span weeks, months and years, filling hundreds of pages and sometimes extending to entire series.

The Qwikpick Adventure Society, a recently published children’s adventure story by Sam Riddleburger, is exactly like that, only … um, well, less so.

Weighing in at a mere 125 pages (some with pictures), this book introduces us to Lyle Hertzog and his friends Dave and Marilla, who set out on a one-day mission to find … a poop fountain. Yes, their town is about to shut down its existing sludge processor in favor of a newer, more efficient model, so the three friends have resolved to witness firsthand the about-to-become-defunct fountain in all its poop-spurting glory.

Of course, this is much more than a story about a poop fountain. It’s also a story about three kids’ desire to … er, have some fun and hang out together. Along the way, they do slay a few dragons: a barbed-wire fence, a steep hill and some prickly brambles, not to mention a field full of cow pies.

As they tackle each new challenge, Lyle discovers some amazing things about himself and the world around him. He’s pretty good at hill hopping, and old dried-up cow pies develop a crusty top with the consistency of paper, just to name two.

OK, you get the picture. This is not your typical Adventure Story. So what makes this tale worth reading? For me, it boils down to a few things:

1. Its simplicity. Not every adventure has to include evil overlords or perilous voyages. These kids embark on a humble expedition, to a sewage plant of all places. Their everyday motivations, reactions to adversity and spirit of camaraderie are things any reader can relate to.

2. Its believable kid’s voice. Our narrator, Lyle, is a kid through and through. Here are just a few examples of the main character’s voice:

On living in a trailer park: Mom says that when we pay off the credit cards we may be able to get a double-wide trailer out in the county. That would be awesome. Sometimes on TV people make jokes about double-wides, but those people have obviously never lived in a single-wide.

On the (potentially romantic) dynamics within the threesome: We’ve never ever talked about it, but I am sure that Dave likes Marilla just as much as I do. I’m sure he guesses I like her too, but like I said, we’ve never said anything about it to each other and never, ever to Marilla.

On the changing nature of the town: Every kid in Crickenburg knows that riding your bike on South Franklin Street is the number-one way to have a cop drive by and yell at you. It isn’t our fault that South Franklin Street has become an eight-lane traffic fiasco of crazed Wal-Mart shoppers! If they want to yell at someone, they should yell at the Wal-Mart shoppers, not kids riding their bikes.

3. Its humor. You can probably gather from the excerpts above that the book has much to offer in this area. Here are just a couple more tidbits that made me laugh out loud:

On his own lack of athletic ability: My favorite PE game is crab soccer because no one can really tell if you’re good at that or not…. Marilla is actually pretty good at basketball and she says that crab soccer is for losers. To which I say, “CRAB SOCCER IS THE SPORT OF KINGS!”

On the word “poop”: You should know that we cracked up each time any of us said the word poop. Yeah, it’s kind of second-grade, I know, but once the word poop has been said fifty times, the fifty-first time is twice as funny. Try it.

(For the record, I have not tried it. Yet.)

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

I'll Tell You, Kids Today

... are smarter and more socially aware than a lot of folks give them credit for. Stop by 11-year-old weewa's blog and see what I mean.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Can I Quote You on That?

At the Blogs United conference this past weekend, we heard from Blog Net News Editor Dave Mastio and attorney Kevin Grierson on the topic of Fair Use.

If you want to quote from someone else's blog, or perhaps from an article or a book, what are your rights and responsibilities?

The panelists explained that in determining whether reprinting materials constitutes fair use, several criteria are used. (Their comments were based on Section 107 of Title 17 of the U.S. Code.)

1. Purpose. Is the material being used to make a profit? If so, the authorities might have a problem with it. According to the panelists, commentary usage gets a lot more leeway than commercial usage.

2. Impact on original use. Will your use of the material harm the original creator’s ability to profit from it? Can you say "Napster"?

3. Substantiality. How much of the material are you using? If you’ve quoted just a few sentences, with a link to the original, you’re probably on safe ground. If you’ve lifted an entire article or reprinted something without attribution … not so much.

For bloggers, this is good news. Most of what we reprint tends be for the purpose of offering commentary. And lord knows, not many bloggers are getting rich off their posts.

What happens if you do post content that the original creator does not consider fair use?

For the most part, the panelists said, the individual or company will first simply ask you to take it down. If you do so quickly, the matter will most likely end there. If you do not take the material down, the originator can proceed to press a lawsuit and would need to prove that your usage does not constitute fair use.

(Another possibility if you do not remove the material is that your service provider may be asked to remove it. According to one of the participants in the audience with experience working for an ISP, the service provider will most likely remove the material as requested.)

For the record, anyone out there who wants to reprint material from this post (or any of my posts) on their blog is welcome to do so. Just give me credit and provide a link!

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Bloggers, Unite!

Live from Newport News, Virginia, I bring you coverage of the 2007 Blogs United Conference. I’m pretty sure I am scooping the entire literary community on this, because, well, um, I’m the only one here to represent it.

Yes, 49 bloggers from throughout the great state of Virginia have registered for the conference, and the numbers shake out something like this:

Conservative political bloggers: 37
Liberal political bloggers: 11
Children’s writing bloggers: 1

Actually, the only reason I’m here (heck, the only reason I even heard of the event) is because my husband runs one of the aforementioned conservative political blogs and he wanted to come. I of course keep up with his blog, as well some of those he links to, so it has been very cool to put names with faces here this weekend.

And while there has been disappointingly little discussion on the impact of blogging on the children’s writing community, the program has touched on some important issues, including: legal issues involving the Internet in Virginia, presented by State Attorney General Bob McDonnell; the impact of blogging on traditional media, led by Virginian-Pilot Editorial Writer Don Luzzato and Daily Press Political Reporter Hugh Lessig; how blogs affect political campaigns, with Repub…. OK, so maybe there’s a reason this conference didn’t draw more children’s writers.

Anyway, the amazing thing has been seeing how well everyone is getting along … Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Federalists, Green Party members, Independents and a Children’s Writer … all able to put aside their differences and work toward the betterment of the blogosphere.

(BTW, my husband and I are capping off the weekend with a Clarks concert tonight over in Virginia Beach! A terrific band ... I urge you to follow that link and check out their music!)

Update: I'm famous! Check out my picture in The Virginian-Pilot's report on the conference. (I'm the blonde off to Josh's right.)

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Tools of the Trade II

In which we examine the derivation of three words, care of the Dictionary of Word Origins by Joseph Shipley. (If you missed Tools of the Trade I, you can find it here.)

Where do you think these words came from?


“Bizarre” is taken from the French, Spanish and Portuguese bizarro, meaning handsome and brave. The Basque word bizarra meant beard, “as a sign of a swashbuckler.” Over time, the term shifted from dashing and courageous to its current connotations. (BTW, Shipley does not offer any information on the origins of the word “swashbuckler.” Such a great word! I’ll have to look it up and report on it someday in “Tools III.”)

“Black” is related to the French words blac and blanc and the English words blank, blanket, blanch and bleach. In other words, white! That is because people used to associate both black and white with the absence of color. Wild, eh?

“Eureka” is more than just a fun word to shout out (though it certainly is that). It comes from the Greek word heureka, which means found and also is related to the word heuretics, which is the logical art of discovery.

Monday, July 9, 2007

With Thanks to Jay Asher

Without this post on your book, my blog surely would have been rated G. How embarrassing.

This rating was determined based on the presence of the following words:

suicide (2x)
kill (1x)

I'm Not a WINner, But I Know People Who Are!

I failed to get my butt in gear and enter the SmartWriters' Write It Now! Competition, but I am so excited today to cheer for the WINners. An amazing group of writers.

You can find all of the winners at the SmartWriters Web site, but I wanted to give a special shout out to the three folks I know (or feel like I know, anyway). I'm so thrilled for you, ladies!

Lindsay Eland, who took first place in the middle-grade category for her AMAZING manuscript, "You Gotta Be Kidding Me." The judge raved: "Funny, great voice, character very interesting, starts with a well orchestrated bang. YAY!" Couldn't agree more. That story is fantastic, and I can't wait to hold it in my hands one day as a real, honest-to-goodness book! Double YAY!

Mindy Alyse Weiss, who received an honorable mention for "In My Heart," also a middle-grade manuscript. The judge wrote: "Really a stunning opening scene. Huge emotional possibilities in the plot." Congratulations, Mindy!

Gail Maki Wilson, who received an honorable mention for her picture book manuscript, "Ants Can't Dance." Said the judge: "Fun story. Excellent rhyming." Wow, praise and recognition for a rhyming picture book! Not too shabby, Gail!

Congratulations to all the winners and to everyone who entered. You put your work out there to be judged, and that can be a tough thing to do!

Friday, July 6, 2007

How to Make ’Em ROFL

Tonight’s Northern Virginia Writers First Friday program was led by stand-up comedian Basil White, who shared ideas on how to add “funny” to our prose.

An excellent program, humorously presented (of course!). Basil, who went to college for cognitive science and psychology, explained that humor crosses all cultures and that scientists have identified the area of the brain that processes humor. It is a very old part of the brain.

Why does it exist? The theory is that our brains are wired to have certain expectations about the world around us and about how people act, what they say, etc. When those expectations are not met, this part of the brain, which belongs to a problem-solving segment of the brain, becomes stimulated. This is pleasurable to us. We want to continue to experience that stimulation, so we continue to think about the joke or the humorous situation and we share it with others.

Cool stuff (at least, for a geek like me)!

So to get to funny, you need to thwart people’s expectations and perceptions of a concept or a situation.

White took a page from Judy Carter’s Comedy Bible and suggested asking yourself: “What is weird about this concept? What is hard about it? What is scary about it? What is stupid about it?”

During the workshop, we played around with those questions using the concept of golf. By the end, Basil had enough material for a short stand-up routine ... which with some editing and context theoretically could be used to add funny to a golf-outing scene in a novel.

Fascinating and fun!

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Happy Independence Day!

As my neighborhood's usual display of highly entertaining and highly illegal fireworks goes on around me, I just wanted to pop in and say happy Fourth of July!

I am so thankful to live in a free country, and one where I can write whatever I please without fear of censorship.

God Bless America!

Monday, July 2, 2007

What Kind of Girl Is Your Main Character?

You are a Brainy Girl!

Whether you're an official student or a casual learner, you enjoy hitting the books.
You know a little bit about everything, and you're always dying to know more.
For a guy to win your heart, he's got to share some of your intellectual interests.
An awesome book collection of his own doesn't hurt either!

My Liz is a brain! But then, I knew that ... she's a great sleuth!

Take this quiz with your main character in mind and see what kind of girl she is!

Sunday, July 1, 2007

I'll Try Not to Let It Go to My Head

Congratulations to the individual who visited Just Like the Nut this morning at 9:15 ... according to my SiteMeter statistics, you became my 1,000th visitor!

I don't know much about you, but I get a little choked up imagining you there on your Microsoft Internet Explorer 6.0 browser, looking at my page through your Bellsouth connection on your Windows XP operating system. I only wish that my blog had more bells and whistles so your Javascript-enabled self could have gotten an even more exciting experience out of your visit!

Anyway, whoever you are, thank you for stopping by!

What does it mean that I now have had 1,000 visitors? It means a few things:

1. My blog opened on May 6 and it is now July 1. If I continue attracting visitors at this pace, come August 27, I will hit 2,000 visitors and will be able to say with a straight face that my blog gets "thousands of visitors."

2. Miss Snark retired from the blogosphere when her site reached 2 million visitors. If I continue at this pace, I will be able to hang up my keyboard on October 29, 2319.

3. Even though Miss Snark is certainly one of the Big Dogs in the publishing blog world (or would that be Killer Yapp?), she doesn't even hold a visitor-attracting candle to Michelle Malkin. So apparently the ability to attract visitors doesn't necessarily mean a whole lot.

Truly, it is the quality of visitors, not the quantity. And as far as I can tell (because I do know more about some of you than I was able to discern about this morning's visitor), the quality of folks who've paid me the honor of their visits over the past two months is up there. Way, way up there. Thanks, and here's to 312 more great years!