Thursday, November 13, 2008

All I Want for Christmas

Is this.

To go with the one collecting dust downstairs.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

More from Rutgers

While my one-on-one session with Kendra Levin was certainly the highlight of my Rutgers experience this year, it was only a portion of the day.

My notes are sketchy at best, so if you're looking for lots of great writing advice and marketing info, please head on over to Tara Lazar's nearly exhaustive reports here. She's a posting machine!

My much more cursory overview: Presentations from K.L. Going and Kay Winters and a panel discussion on "Your Book: From Manuscript to the Book Store" offered some great insights into the industry.

And my "five-on-five" session with four editors and an agent revealed something I found quite interesting: When asked for querying advice, both Erin Molta of Scholastic Book Clubs and Grace Kendall of Blue Sky Press indicated they like to learn why the writer wrote the manuscript ... her motivations, inspirations and goals. I like that they care about that stuff. Kendra Levin was also in my five-on-five, and she recommended targeting editors that match your "literary aesthetic." I hadn't given much thought to my literary aesthetic, but I will now!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Battling the Baptist Disease

An aside in my last post reminded me of a funny story.

I was discussing writing with my brother-in-law a few months back and mentioned to him my propensity to overuse the word "just."

"So you have the Baptist disease?" he asked.


"The Baptist disease. You, know: 'Dear Lord, we just thank you for this meal and just pray that you'll just, just bless this food, Lord, and just be with us as we enjoy this time together. Lord, just please, watch over us....'"

Hee! Baptists are good folks, but I sure don't want to write like them!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Do Not, I Repeat, Do Not, Repeat!

Writers are often advised to avoid repeating the same words and phrases. And that’s great advice for words such as “looked,” “seemed,” “felt,” “very” and my personal Achilles’ heel, “just.”

But sometimes repetition is used to great effect. At a recent Northern Virginia Writers First Friday event, author Kate Blackwell spoke on “Playing with Voice” and examined how authors can use repetition to establish a distinctive rhythm and voice.

Case in point: Observatory Mansions: A Novel by Edward Carey, published by Crown in 2001. Check out this first paragraph:

I wore white gloves. I lived with my mother and father. I was not a child. I was thirty-seven years old. My bottom lip was swollen. I wore white gloves though I was not a servant. I did not play in a brass band. I was not a waiter. I was not a magician. I was the attendant of a museum. A museum of significant objects. I wore white gloves so that I would not damage any of the nine hundred and eighty-six objects in the museum. I wore white gloves so that I would not have to touch anything with my bare hands. I wore white gloves so that I would not have to look at my own hands.

Gives you chills, no? And as Kate points out, it not only establishes a voice, it tells you quite a lot about the main character. OCD much?

BTW, our next First Friday event is going to be a blast, with three literary agents on hand to critique queries, with fabulous prizes for the Idol winners. If you live in the D.C. area, you’ll want to check it out. Here’s the promo and instructions should you wish to throw your manuscript into the ring:

Northern Virginia Writers First Friday: Leesburg Idol
October 3, 2008; 7:30 PM - 9:30 PM
Leesburg Town Hall, 25 West Market St., Leesburg, VA 20176

Similar to the pop culture TV show, this will be an opportunity to have your work judged by industry professionals: literary agents Deborah Grosvenor of Kneerim and Williams Agency; and Paige Wheeler and Jeff Kleinman of Folio Literary Management.

To participate, please STAPLE together your entry in the following order: (1) a cover sheet with your project’s name, genre, and “tag line” (a one-to three-sentence description of your story), (2) one-page query letter addressed to "Dear Agent," and (3) the first three pages of your book. DO NOT include identifying information on any page of your submission. All genres are welcome. Prizes include free tuition to a multi-session Writer’s Center workshop (up to a $340 value), free one-year membership to the Writer’s Center, and free admission to all NVW 2009 First Friday events.

For more information on how to write a query letter, please go to

We anticipate a packed house. Advanced reservations strongly recommended. Go to

Admission: $4 for Writer's Center members and Leesburg residents; $6 general public.

Hope to see some of you there!

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Book Review: Stonewall Hinkleman

OK, so there I am, all la-di-da, reading my brand new ARC of Stonewall Hinkleman and the Battle of Bull Run, by my buddy Sam Riddleburger and his co-author, Michael Hemphill.

I’m marveling at the spot-on teen voice. I’m appreciating the historical references expertly inserted throughout. I’m admiring the way they handle the whole time-travel-portal thing. I’m just plain enjoying a fun story, well told.

When all of a sudden … Wham!

A third of the way through the book, there’s this note, written by Thomas Stonewall Jackson himself to our main character, Stonewall Hinkleman (who, in case you haven’t guessed, is named after him), and the note is urging Hinkleman to prevent the South from winning the Civil War.

Yes, the South, the very side I fought for, but which I now know to have been very much in the wrong. Now I understand the extraordinary injustice of slavery and the countless contributions that African Americans as a free people have made to….

Get. Out.

Now, for those of you from the North, or the Midwest, or the West, or Florida … you may be wondering, Linda, what’s the big deal? The Union beat the Confederacy. The slaves were freed. It’s all good. Right?

Hmph. Shows what you know.

Not that I don’t get where you’re coming from. I was born, raised and educated in Pennsylvania. I’m a Yankee at heart.

However, having lived south of the Mason Dixon line for 20+ years and having a brother who teaches Civil War history to fifth graders in North Carolina, I can tell you, there is another version of that portion of American history, one that has less to do with freeing slaves and maintaining these United States of America and more to do with rejecting rule by a federal government and protecting one’s homeland from an invasion by the North.

So how is it that two authors from the great state of Virginia have fictionalized a note from Stonewall Jackson calling the South wrong? Surely they realize this will be considered sheer blasphemy by many of their neighbors. Are they trying to stir up controversy? And if so, wouldn’t it be simpler just to use the word “scrotum” somewhere in the note and be done with it?

So now I’m all no-they-didn’t as I’m reading the rest of the ARC, wondering (fearing) whether this is going to be just a PC indictment of the South with no acknowledgement of the genuine issues the Confederacy faced during the dark days of the war.

But I don’t have long to wonder. About 20 pages later, I get to a part where a Confederate soldier named Cyrus tells Hinkleman about his family’s business dealings with blacks.

Hinkleman is shocked:

Free blacks? In Virginia? And Joshua treated them the same as whites? I look hard at Cyrus to see if he’s joking. I always think of all blacks as slaves and all whites as slave-owners, but it was a lot more complicated than that.

And just a few pages later, Cyrus and Hinkleman have this exchange:

“… the way I see it, the North is full of men like John Brown. Men who killed my brother and now want to come down here and tell us how to live. … some things are worth fighting for. Like family and home.”

“But John Brown was trying to free slaves,” I say, more to myself. “I mean, that’s what the war was all about.”

I look up at Cyrus. He’s got a scowl on his face and he says real low, “Joshua didn’t have no slaves. Daddy and me don’t have no slaves. This ain’t about the slaves. This is about us being free.”

And so it is that I was able to resume my la-di-da reading, this time with an even keener appreciation for the historical perspectives being brought to Stonewall Hinkleman’s story.

Well done, lads. Well done.

(P.S. No review of “Stonewall Hinkleman” would be complete without mention of the fantabulous cover, illustrated by none other than Tuesday Mourning.)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Good and the Bad

The Good: I was accepted to the 2008 Rutgers One on One Conference for kidlit writers! Yay! You can read my review of last year's conference here.

The Bad: Ron Rosenbaum at Slate is an unfunny goober. Some excellent responses here and here. Puzzling rocks!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

I Have a New "Favorite" Blog

For those of you who missed this link on Nathan Bransford's weekly roundup. Such a misunderstood and abused punctuation mark.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


Sob! I hardly knew ye.

I Had No Idea

It would be "such a shame" to get published.

Ah, well. We kid lit types must suffer for our art.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

What's Your Reading Speed?

I have always considered myself a slow reader. Turns out my reading speed is "average" (though I'm guessing that is slow relative to others who read as much as I do).

How fast do you read? Find out.

Fun with Cliches

Everyone knows the old Chinese-fortune-cookie/between-the-sheets trick.

Well, I've discovered something similar just for writers: Take one of those yearbook signing cliches from back in the day and insert "unpublished manuscript" and, voila! Instant writing advice. Sometimes funny, sometimes deep, often depressing.

To wit:

The unpublished manuscript that doesn't kill you can only make you stronger.

If you love your unpublished manuscript, let it go. If it comes back to you, it's yours. If it doesn't, it never was.

May your beer, your women and your unpublished manuscript never be flat.

Don't ever change your unpublished manuscript.

Well, OK, some don't work as well as others....

Monday, July 21, 2008

Mission Work, Rock 'n' Roll and Writing Conferences

July has been an eventful month on the road for this usual homebody. Here's the travelogue (with pictures!):

Montego Bay, Jamaica. Spent a week with some teens from my church youth group on a mission trip to Jamaica, visiting several orphanages, a home for troubled teen girls, a home for kids with special needs and an AIDS/elderly hospice.

Jamaica, of course, is a gorgeous country with a horribly depressed economy. We saw some of the worst of the worst ... many of these folks had nothing and no one, and frankly, no real prospects for improving their situation. Yet, many of them were the most faith-filled and hopeful people I've ever met.

Coming from a country whose entire ethos is built on the idea that "if you work hard, you can achieve your goals," it is hard to imagine living someplace where that might not be the case. (Actually -- dare I say it? -- as a writer, it's slightly less hard to imagine.) In any case, I came away inspired by all those we met, and also by the teens in our group, who took to each new group we visited like otters to water. Their infectious, joyful spirit drew in the little ones and older folks alike.

I forgot my camera for this trip (ridiculous, aren't I?) ... but my roommate was kind enough to share her photos. Here's a shot of me with a little sweetheart in one of the orphanages, who managed to boost her already substantial cuteness factor even higher wearing my shades:

Dewey Beach, Delaware. A few days after my return from Jamaica, Joe and I headed to up to the Bottle and Cork in Dewey Beach to see The Clarks, a fantastic concert at a fun venue. I went to school with those guys, and it's great to see them lo these many years hence still playing together, better than ever.

The Clarks have a huge and loyal following in Western PA and have achieved some minor national successes, including playing on Letterman once and having a few songs used in popular movies, but they've never had that breakout hit that might have launched them onto the national scene. They're as good as or better than any world-famous band out there, though, IMO. If you've never heard of them, I encourage you to check out their Web site at (Warning, the site starts playing music as soon as it comes up, so if you're reading this in the library or with a sleeping baby on your lap, you may want to check it out later.)

BTW, The Clarks were opening for Sister Hazel, best known for the song "All for You," which you can check out here. For all I know, Sister Hazel probably has some other hits as well, as the crowd did seem to greet a few of their other songs with great enthusiasm, but being a tad out of today's music scene, I only recognized the one. They were a lot of fun, though frankly I think The Clarks were even better.

Forgot my camera once again, but here is a shot from Joe's camera:

If you look carefully, you can see Clarks lead singer Scott Blasey behind Joe and bass player Greg Joseph (a.k.a. "Chief") behind me. If this shot looks a little PhotoShopped ... well, it is, but only because I was trying to lighten the background so you could see those guys. I didn't paste our heads in there or anything. (Promise!)

Westminster, Maryland. Finally, yesterday I drove up to beautiful McDaniel College for the MD/DE/WV SCBWI conference. The highlight for me was Cynthia Lord's presentation on "The Pluses and Perils of Writing What You Know." In my continuing struggle to bring more depth to my writing, I found Cindy's thoughts on digging into one's own experiences for more emotion and setting details most helpful.

Thank goodness I brought my copy of Rules up with me, because the conference booksellers sold out of them early on. Having Cindy sign what is one of my all-time favorite middle-grade books was a thrill, and even better was when she said she recognized my name from the Verla Kay Blue Boards. Cynthia Lord "knows" me? Cool!

Also wonderful was the breakout session I attended where Aimee Friedman discussed life as a YA author and Scholastic editor. Her level of productivity is both amazing and inspiring. Like me, Aimee works full time at a job that requires a lot of writing/editing/general wordsmithing; she edits her work as she goes, much to her own dismay; and she found that her first manuscript came easily while subsequent works have been much harder. Now, there's someone I can relate to! Sometimes I put so much pressure on myself to produce that I end up accomplishing nothing. Aimee's advice to "do what you can" and give yourself the time you need gave me a sense of freedom that can only result in more, better writing.

Aimee also did a critique of the first couple of chapters of my YA work in progress. She was extremely encouraging and gave me some (much needed!) direction. A wonderful, sweet person, who also did me the honor of signing a copy of her latest book, which I am very much looking forward to reading.

I did remember my camera for this event (woo hoo!) and so here is our panel of distinguished presenters:

Seated from left to right: Cynthia Lord, Clarion editor Lynn Polvino, Aimee Friedman, Greenwillow editor Martha Mihalik, author Jen Bryant and agent Linda Pratt. Standing at the podium is moderator extraordinaire and McDaniel professor Mona Kerby.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

It's All About Me

I'm too tired right now to post anything remotely intelligent in regards to writing, but I do want to post something so that my loyal readers -- all two of you -- won't despair that I've completely fallen off the face of the earth.

So ... here's a post about "what I'm up to":

1) Very psyched to be off work for the next 10 days as I head out Sunday to (drum roll, please) Jamaica! This won't exactly be a vacation, as I'm traveling with a bunch of teens on a mission trip to work in some of the country's orphanages. But it'll certainly be exotic and no doubt will give me a new perspective on life.

2) Down two games to one in Scrabulous against the brilliant (obviously!) Tom Angleberger, a.k.a. Sam Riddleburger. But have established a lead (I dare not say "comfortable" vs. that word shark) in game four.

3) Waxing nostalgic as I prepare to see the inimitable Miss Donna Summer tomorrow night with a girlfriend at Wolf Trap. Love to Love You, Baby!

4) Excited to watch local running phenom Alan Webb run the 1500 tonight ... eyes on Beijing, Alan! Update: Woohoo!

5) Looking forward to the Maryland, Delaware and West Virginia SCBWI event later this month, where Scholastic editor Aimee Friedman will be critiquing my YA manuscript submission. Very cool.

Have a happy and safe Fourth of July weekend! Will post again after my trip!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Theme vs. Premise vs. Plot

I think agent Nathan Bransford can read my mind. Or maybe he was sitting at the next table at Germano's in Baltimore this weekend, when I was whining to my sister and nieces that I'm stuck in my YA work in progress because "I have a theme, and I have a premise, but I don't really have a plot."

In this incredible post, Nathan breaks down those three elements and gives spot-on insight into how to create and define the ever-important plot. A must-read for writers ... please follow that link!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Troubleshooting Tips ... and Some Cool Stuff

I'm a little slow in posting this, a revelation I'm sure my readers find shocking given my clockwork-like posting habits. Anywho...

A couple of weeks ago, the Northern Virginia Writers hosted Kathryn Johnson, a prolific author and writing coach, who spoke on "Polishing for Publication: 12 Troubleshooting Tips Anyone Can Use to Create a Marketable Manuscript."

I'm not inclined to reveal all 12 of Kathryn's tips here since that training is her bread and butter, but I'll share two.

  1. Make your opening sentence count. Opening sentences should create curiosity in the reader and raise some questions. The example Kathryn shared was Tracy Chevalier's "Girl with a Pearl Earring," which begins, My mother did not tell me they were coming. Who are "they"? Why did the narrator feel she should be told? What will happen when they come? Great stuff.
  2. Use lots of dialogue. According to Kathryn, dialogue ... and plenty of it ... is all the rage for editors these days. Get your characters talking!

Now, onto the cool stuff alluded to in the second part of my headline...

Check out this amazing video, which I discovered in the comment section of my favorite Crossword Puzzle blog, The JimH Crossword Blog. (If you are a NYT puzzle fan, this site is a "can't miss.") (The video is non-crossword related, BTW.)

And, check out the highly amusing GraphJam, which came to my attention courtesy of Eric Berlin, an expert puzzler and a kid lit writer. Warning: GraphJam has the potential to be a major time suck. (It also is non-crossword related.)

Friday, June 6, 2008

I Have a Friend

On May 23, I joined FaceBook, meaning I created a page for "Linda Acorn" with my name and a great big question mark on it. Tonight, a mere two weeks later, I received my first invitation to become someone's friend.

I have to tell you, I felt a little like I did in the second grade, when Leslie Brooks and Dolores Borelli invited me to be their friend. I remember that day like it was yesterday. Back in the day, being asked to be someone's friend was a big deal.

Nowadays, everyone friends everyone ... heck, "friending" has become a verb. I friend; you friend; he, she or it friends. I fully expect the verb form to be added to Webster's before long. (Gotta love our living language. But I digress.)

Having a friend on FaceBook has forced me to upgrade my anemic profile. Now that someone has access to it, I want to put on a good face. I posted some interests, some background info, some details that I hope will confirm to my new friend that I am indeed friendship-worthy. (The great big question mark is still there, though. ... I have the darnedest time finding a photo of myself that I like.)

I haven't yet figured out how to find friends myself on FaceBook, but I suppose that's the next step. Time to expand my circle before Friend #1 starts to wonder whether I'm a total loser.

Wonder if Leslie and Dolores are on?

Friend #1 has written on my wall! Squee!

Update 2: I am no longer a question mark! I have truly put a "good face" (well, I hope it's good) on my page. Also, I have five friends now! And I've even lost at Scrabulous to one of them! (I know, word games should be my forte. Sigh)

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

A Lesson Learned from 'Making the Band'

Though my recent Brush with Fame in Baltimore happened during a non-writing-related conference, it did teach me a few important lessons.

For one thing, I learned that putting a photo of Danity Kane on your blog can make for a pretty good traffic draw. Even more so than photos related to children's literature. Shocking, but true.

I also learned a couple of things about reality TV production that might translate well to fiction writing.

During the brief time I spent watching the Making the Band cast and crew, the two camera crews filmed everything. The cameras were constantly rolling. They filmed the entire cast disembarking from the bus, the unloading of the suitcases from the bus, the wheeling of the suitcases into the hotel, etc. I am guessing when the episode about the band's tour finally airs, all but about five seconds max of that scene will end up on the cutting room floor. Maybe a shot of the hotel entrance and a short clip of my new buddy Brian (finally figured out the corn row dude's name!) stepping off the bus. Let's face it, the band's arrival at yet another hotel on yet another tour stop is not going to make for exciting TV.

In fiction, we need to know everything that happens to our characters and everything about our story's setting, i.e., we need to "film it" all in our minds, but we don't need to put it all down on the page. We need to provide just enough information on the setting to give our readers a sense of place, and we need to describe just enough of their activity to provide context for the story.

Bad: Brian stepped off the tour bus onto the sidewalk. The sign in front of the hotel read 'Hilton Garden Inn - Inner Harbor.' Brian and the rest of the band walked to the front of the hotel, through the turn-style door, and into the lobby. Meanwhile, a bellman got the bags out from under the bus. Brian watched as the man filled several carts with their bags. It took about five minutes because there were a lot of them. Most were pink, Danity Kane's. Once he had unloaded all the suitcases, the bellman rolled the first cart to the door. Another bellman got the door for him...."

Better: "Brian squinted as he stepped off the tour bus. Which city was this again? The sign in front of the hotel said 'Hilton Garden Inn - Inner Harbor.' Must be Baltimore. So this must be Thursday. The days and the venues all blurred together. Brian watched as the hotel bellmen unloaded the bands' bags from under the bus. Pink suitcase after pink suitcase. Dagg, those Danity Kane girls could pack."

The pink suitcases (and there were a LOT of them!) bring me to another lesson. As the hotel's poor bellman struggled to wheel his loaded cart through the front door, a duffel bag tumbled off the pile and onto the ground. It was one of Shannon Bex's (yes, I learned her name too ... she's the blonde!). One of the crew pointed this out to Shannon, who simply shrugged. This was not caught on camera. Now, had Shannon thrown a fit and yelled at the bellman, I'm guessing it would have taken a cameraman all of about two seconds to run over and start filming.

In fiction, we need to relay only those scenes where things happen, scenes with conflict. No conflict equals no story. (The great thing about fiction is, we can create the conflict. If this had been a novel about a fictional girl band, the Shannon character surely would have had a hissy fit to end all hissy fits!)

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Brush with Fame in Baltimore

I'm enjoying a lovely view of the Inner Harbor from my room at the Hilton Garden Inn this evening. What I'd expected to be an utterly banal stay has in fact turned out to be quite the opposite.

I'd spent the day at a conference (alas, not related to writing) and came back to the hotel to find the lobby filled with a whole bunch of folks who looked, dressed and acted a lot cooler than me, and two camera crews and a humongo tour bus outside the front door. Turns out the Making the Band finalists are playing here tomorrow night and they're staying right here in this very establishment.

Sitting in the lobby were two ladies from Danity Kane (the second from the left and the fourth from the left).

I rode the elevator with a member of Day 26 (the dude with the corn rows), who helpfully explained to my clueless self who all these people were and why they were here.

I'm pretty much a reality TV junkie but have somehow managed to miss both seasons of this show. Now that I'm tight with one of the top contestants, I may just have to start watching.

Later, as I relaxed in my room, a fantastic fireworks display started up right outside my window. Not sure if this is a nightly occurrence on the harbor, but it was a nice surprise to me.

Re: the conference ... it was work related and so I won't bore you with a recap, except to point you to this very funny video one of the presenters showed, a spoof on FaceBook.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Grab Bag o' Kid Lit Stuff

I've had a busy few weeks (thus the dearth of posts), but my adventures have provided some good fodder for a post:

  • At the SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Chapter New Member Welcome event on April 26 (which I never miss, though it's been years since I was "new") we were treated to excellent presentations by Candlewick Editor Kate Fletcher and authors Gigi Amateau and Meg Medina. One comment that really hit home for me was Meg's answer to a question about how to handle an editor's request for major revisions to a novel. Meg said she finds you need to take some time to grieve the manuscript you thought you were writing, and when you are finished grieving, you can open your eyes to the amazing manuscript you have and its wonderful, unrealized potential.

    Kudos to the event organizers, who ... no lie ... baked hundreds of homemade cookies and brownies for us. Oh, yeah!

  • On May 2, Phillip Lerman, a former producer for FOX's "America's Most Wanted" and author of the very funny Dadditude, spoke at a Northern Virginia Writers event on what print writers can learn from TV folks.

    Lerman suggested a fun exercise to build our skills at creating voice. Pick people you know ... this can be family, friends, TV personalities ... and write in their voice. Imagine them saying the words. How would they sound? Lerman said he knows how John Walsh of "America's Most Wanted" speaks better than John knows himself. We need to tune into our characters just as strongly.

    (BTW, be sure to check out Lerman's book as a potential Father's Day gift ... but only if dad can handle plenty of colorful language.)

  • A visit to my brother in North Carolina this past weekend gave me a chance to quiz my 8-year-old niece about her kid lit preferences. Her favorite characters? Amelia Bedelia, Junie B. Jones and Captain Underpants. Hah! Cool kid. Must take after her aunt.

  • Sunday's Washington Post Book World was devoted to children's books (woohoo!!). Most interesting to me was a piece by my favorite advice columnist, Carolyn Hax. Carolyn's regular column in The Post is smart, funny and brutally honest, so I was curious to see what she had to say about kid lit. Turns out, as a mother of three, she understands a thing or two about the genre. Her reviews are just as smart, funny and brutally honest as her advice column. Check it out.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Ah, the Wonders of Self Publishing

First we have My New Mommy, explaining to kids why mom needs a tummy tuck (helpfully written by a plastic surgeon), and now this.

Even if the topic weren't laugh-out-loud funny, the preachy prose would be. I won't pick on the illustrations, as they do at least seem to be, er, inspired by the subject matter.

Thanks to Word Wrangler for turning me onto it (the book, that is).

(BTW, I do not think self publishing is bad in and of itself. There are some excellent reasons to self-publish, and there are many quality self-pub'd books out there. But that's a post for another time.)

Monday, April 21, 2008

SCBWI Poconos Retreat Highlights

Last weekend's SCBWI Eastern Pennsylvania retreat in the Poconos turned out to be the most productive and worthwhile writing event I have ever attended. And I've been to a few, to be sure.

I'm about a week later than I'd intended posting these highlights, but we can blame the conference itself for that. It left me so motivated and inspired, I came home and wrote and wrote and wrote, making more progress on a new YA novel (yes, YA!) than I've ever made in one week.

I'm going to share just a couple of notes here, because, well, if you want more, you should fork over the money next year and experience it for yourself.
  • A breakout session by Jill Santopolo of Laura Geringer Books on adding emotional depth to your writing was for me the main event. Just what my writing needs, and Jill did an incredible job showing us a number of ways to draw the reader into our stories. I'll share just one: When writing dialogue, instead of having your character say exactly what she means, have her "say it slant," in Jill's words. That is, allow the dialogue to imply the thought without stating it explicitly.

  • My manuscript critique by agent Rebecca Sherman of Writer's House ranked among the best crits I've ever received. One and a half typed pages of notes! There was something in my middle-grade manuscript that didn't quite work, and Rebecca not only helped me figure out what that was but gave me terrific direction on how to fix it! Good stuff! One piece of advice Rebecca gave that others may find helpful as well: It is OK to make your MC slightly dorky, but be careful not to go overboard. Readers want to relate to the MC, so they may be turned off by someone who has to work too hard to be popular.

  • I wasn't sure what to expect from Gene Barretta's talk on the career journey. Gene writes and illustrates picture books, a talent which is about as foreign to me as crafting and playing the didgeridoo. But he was entertaining and funny and had lots of adorable pictures of his son. And I found it fascinating how he has brought his experiences working in television and puppetry to his current line of work. As he noted, any experience you have in life can be used to inform your writing.

  • Middle-grade author Jordan Sonnenblick had me laughing so hard, I forgot to take a single note. But, I do remember this: If Scholastic ever lures you to their offices for a Big Meeting to talk about Book Deals and Contracts, you might want to leave the kids back at the Big Fancy Hotel Room they put you up in. (I'm guessing I have about as good a chance at becoming the world's greatest didgeridoo player as I do at needing that piece of advice, but hey, you never know!)

  • T.A. Barron's talk (which actually kicked off the conference, though I've saved it for last here) was truly inspirational and did not leave a dry eye in the house. In particular, he made one seminal statement, just as an aside, really, but it struck a chord ... that the distinction between heroism and celebrity in our society is terribly skewed. So, so true. That observation planted a seed for me, a seed that I plan to grow into the theme of the aforementioned new YA WIP.

So all in all, a wonderful investment for me. All the sessions were terrific, not to mention the networking. Always great to see old friends and meet new ones, and the Pocono retreat offers lots of time and opportunity to do that. Hope to see some of you there in 2009!

Monday, April 14, 2008

What Is Nut Now?

For the past few days, lots of folks from all over the world have found my site in their quest to find information on "nut now." At least, that's what my SiteMeter stats tell me.

First, my apologies ... I have no information relating to "nut now" on this site.

Second, what is it? If one of you could please leave a comment letting me know what this "nut now" craze is about, I'd really appreciate it!

Now ... as for our regular programming, I will be posting in another day or so some of my notes from the SCBWI Eastern PA conference. The authors, editors and agent gave lots of terrific writing and market advice, and I look forward to sharing a few of the highlights.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

I'm Back ... and Bewildered

I'm back: Sorry I haven't posted in so long. I've been swamped at work, and Joe and I recently got back from a 10-day trip to San Diego. Am hoping to get back in the saddle now. And since I'm heading up to the Eastern PA SCBWI Poconos Retreat this weekend (yeeha!), I hope to have some good stuff to post soon!

I'm bewildered (and also flattered): Somehow my very humble blog has made SCBWI Scotland's short list of author links, along with legends Jane Yolen, Harold Underdown, Dottie Enderle, Margo Finke and just a few others! Check it out here. Especially odd since technically I'm not an "author" yet, not having been published. But, I'll take it ... and may the Power of Positive Thinking lead me to fulfill my apparent destiny!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Maybe Some Day I'll Try to Write a REAL Book

Today's Washington Post Book World has a terrific piece by Lois Lowry, "The Writing Life: In Which a Chronic Liar Grows Up to Be a Celebrated Children's Author." Lowery's article on her childhood proclivity for creating "fiction" is funny and enlightening, a celebration of storytelling in its purist form.

The accompanying sidebar, "Lois Lowery: Making It New," written by Maria Arana, details Lowery's biography and her prolific writing career as evidenced by her 30 published books, including two Newbery winners.

A full page in the Post Book World devoted to a children's writer! Heaven on newsprint for someone like me.

Er, until the second-to-last paragraph of the sidebar, in which Arana for some reason feels compelled to ask: "Has she ever contemplated writing a novel for grown-ups?"

Huh? Am I being sensitive or does that question discount this woman's vocation (and avocation) of writing for children? Why do some people, including perhaps this Washington Post Book World reporter, seem to think "real authors" must write for adults?

Bravo to Lois Lowery for her response to this bit of idiocy: "I'm doing something far more valuable, writing for someone who is wide open -- aged somewhere between 10 and 14. I'm preparing kids to enter the difficult world of contemporary times."

One wonders if Lowery had to bite her tongue to give that answer. She is a better woman than I.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

I Just Didn't Connect with It

I really, really wanted to love Looking for Alaska. Because, well, almost everyone loves it, and because it won a Printz Award and because John Green seems like a nice, funny guy and has a great blog.

Writers are always hearing from agents and editors that "I just didn't connect with your work." And now I know what they mean. John's writing is great, the voice authentic, his theme intriguing. But, I just didn't connect. (Actually, John may be one of the few writers in the world never to have been told that ... apparently he sold Alaska to the first editor he submitted to, which is another reason I know I really should love this book.)

I think there were three main reasons I didn't connect.

  1. I hate pranks. Pranks play a large part in the book. And granted, the final prank is a hoot and is pulled off beautifully. But I cringe at TV shows and movies with pranks, and I felt that same discomfort here.

  2. I generally shy away from dark themes. I've never been a big Coen brothers fan. Disliked Fargo. Hated No Country. So you see where I'm coming from. Alaska has lots of humor and light moments, but let's face it, suicide (or, I should say, potential suicide) is dark, no matter how you frame it. This is not to say I never enjoy reading serious or dark books, but that generally is not my preference, so I'm sure that had something to do with my overall reaction to the book.

  3. The ending made me very, very unhappy. Not because it wasn't satisfying. Not because it didn't work. Not because it seemed contrived or inappropriate or unrealistic or any of those things. No, the reason I hated the ending is because Green ends with his main character writing a school essay exploring the meaning of life and love and friendship ... and that's how I was going to end my current work in progress! Now I'll just seem derivative. So I have to think about whether to stick to my plan or change it. Waaaah! (Ah, well, great minds... LOL.)

Now, please do not take this post to mean that you shouldn't read the book. John Green probably has more writing talent in his little finger than I have in my whole body, so by all means take this "review" with a couple/few grains of salt. My main point here, as indicated by the title of this post, is to reinforce to myself and maybe to others that those six little words, "I just didn't connect with it," might mean just that. And just because one editor or agent or reader didn't connect doesn't mean no one will.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

I'm Married to a Grumpy Old Man

Joe has always been grumpy, and proud of it. But now he's officially old, too.

I have a few good years left in me before I get there, thankfully.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Random, Funny and Slightly Twisted

Thanks to the folks at Digital Camel for turning me on to this gem, since I do enjoy poking fun at myself now and again (and be sure to check out #21 while you're there).

And to Shari Green for pointing to this video of an impressive, albeit slightly disturbing, improv stunt.

UPDATE: OK, one more, discovered via my favorite blogging trio over at Disco Mermaids. I've never been a big fan of the original Garfield comic strip, but this version works just fine.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

It's a Start: Work in Progress Edition III

Welcome to the third edition of It's a Start: Work in Progress. This edition will take a look at five "entries."

If you'd like to submit your novel's beginning for a future post, please go ahead and leave the first 8-12 lines of your MG or YA work in progress in the comments section or send me a Personal Message via the Verla Kay Blue Boards (where I am known as LindaBudz).

Once again, the disclaimer: I'm not an agent or an editor and have no real standing to offer these critiques. My opinion may not reflect the opinion of anyone else in the kid-lit world, much less publishers, so please take my comments for what they are ... one person's reaction.

The Memoirs of Shadows (Young Adult), by Dhonielle

I know I’ll never be free. Grand-mère told me the summer after the shadows came that they’d follow me for life. She let me inside her forbidden room, the one she always shooed me and my older brother Devon away from each summer when our parents sent us down to Louisiana . Sitting inside this room with a blue-draped doorway, she lit bumpy, finger-like candles and sticks that smoked and ashed, clogging the dark room with scents which made my head float in air water. I was only twelve when I watched my Creole grandmother drop bones from a bag and pray, waving her heavy hands in the air, all the bangles and bracelets she wore jangling; her fluffy white hair billowing around her like storm clouds trapped on top of her head; her skin the color of the pistachio shells buried in her pocket, reddening beneath candlelight.

Her wrinkly hands spread the little bones out on the table and I fixated on the cataract in her left eye overtaking her brown pupil. I’d been afraid to look at those bones, for fear that the animal from which she retrieved them would somehow rise again on that black covered table, the bones reassembling themselves, linking together, finding one another and the animal would hiss and leap from the table, eventually slinking away somewhere in the house. I remember her saying, “Petit, those shadows you see are things God left behind. You know when he created the world. Keep quiet about them to keep them safe. You’re a special girl.”

Wow, this piece has such a distinct mood ... the lyrical writing, the imagery, the voice and the subject matter all combine wonderfully to create a sense of "shadowy" foreboding. Nicely done!

In general, literary stuff isn't my bag, so you can take my criticism with a grain of salt. I guess my main thought here is that I'm hoping the next paragraph is going to bring us back to the present, or to the time when the story that's about to be told occurs. I feel like most of these two paragraphs are backstory, though since they're interesting backstory, I don't mind. But I would want to get to the current story pretty quickly. I also want to find out soon how old the MC is now.

Which brings me to my only other issue: At first I thought that first paragraph was discussing two separate things: (1) the summer after the shadows came and her grandmother told her they'd follow her for life and (2) one time when she was twelve and her grandmother did a reading of the bones. It wasn't until I read it over again that I realized it is all one scene. I think maybe you could take out "I was only twelve when," which to my mind signal a shift in scenes, and work in the fact that she was twelve some other way.

Overall: Gorgeous writing. Makes me want to think about giving literary YA another look!

Afterside (Young Adult), by Lisa

Mateo Santiago crouched in the grocery store basement and watched the rat he'd failed to trap slither behind some potato sacks. He unfolded Mama's letter of hopeless dreams from his pocket, smoothed it out and read it one more time. Last night, meaning to throw them both away, he'd crumpled it in his pocket along with the poster for the poetry slam in Mainville. How could he tell Mama trouble had found him just like Esteban?

Noche crept to his side on three legs and rubbed against him, purring like an idling truck. Mateo dug out a few meat strips from his apron pocket. "Aqui, un poquito." The cat nibbled daintily and licked his palm with its rough tongue.

Mateo rubbed under Noche's chin. She purred louder. "Tío will kill me if he finds out I'm feeding you. If I don't come around anymore, how will you eat, you lazy cat?"

Ray's hoarse voice called down the stairs. "Matty! Dude, you down there? You better come up. There's people here lookin' for you."

OK, that last quote took us beyond the 12-sentence limit, but I left it in there because the language works so beautifully in contrast with the first few paragraphs. Again, we have great writing and voice. And lots of strong verbs: crouched, slither, smoothed, crumpled ... all in the first paragraph! I'm intrigued to know what trouble has found Mateo ... who are these people who are looking for him?

I'm sort of digging for something to criticize here, so this is kind of picky, but "letter of hopeless dreams" took me out of the scene a bit. I had to think about what that might mean, and I'm still not sure. I think maybe it would be better just to say "letter" for now and then later we can learn more about what's in it.

Overall: Makes me long to be back in your crit group so I can read the rest, Lis!

Blue (Middle Grade), by Heather

"Are you sure that it is safe?" asked Prince Nicholas, gazing up the trunk of the large tree.

Kelly sighed and impatiently pushed a strand of blonde hair out of her eyes. "Yes, I'm sure. Don't be such a wimp."

"I'm not a wimp," Nicholas said, frowning.

"Then prove it. Race me to the top of the tree," Kelly said, shooting a challenging look at her cousin.

"Fine," said Nicholas, resolutely straightening his shoulders as he stood in front of the tree.

Kelly took her place on the opposite side of the tree. "Ready...set...go!" she said, and the two began climbing.

Starting with dialogue can be tricky business, but I think this works. "Are you sure it's safe?" sets us right down into some good conflict. Makes me think something bad is going to come of this tree-climbing race. Which is good! Get those characters into some hot water and keep them there. I'm also starting to get a sense of these characters ... one a bit more cautious than the other, which you've done a good job of showing us rather than telling us.

A couple of thoughts: First, we know Nicholas is a prince, which made me wonder what Kelly is. She must have some sort of noble title, and I'd like to know what that is.

Second, most of your dialogue tags follow the same pattern, which got repetitious for me: "asked, gazing"; "said, frowning"; "said, shooting"; "said, straightening." I would just delete the tag on a couple of those. For example: "Then prove it. Race me to the top of the tree." Kelly shot a challenging look at her cousin. "Fine." Nicholas straightened his shoulders. If you have the action follow the quote, we know who's talking and don't need the tag. (And in that last sentence, I don't think we need "as he stood in front of the tree" since we already know he was gazing up its trunk.)

Overall: Hard to tell from this small snippet, but it seems as though you have two engaging characters, and I want to know what happens when they get to the top of that tree.

Triple Threat: A Theatre Novel in Three Acts (Middle Grade), by Steve

Act One

Permission to Audition


I was in kindergarten the first time I ever saw Duncan Kirby. He was on stage dressed in a penguin suit, tap dancing with eleven other five and six-year-olds in a Sunday matinee of Mr. Popper’s Penguins at the Fremont Gap Community Theatre, better known as FGCT, over six years ago.

That was the day I decided to become an actor.

My name is Wyatt Appleby. I’ll be twelve as of 10:42 today, Friday, August 24. Monday I start sixth grade at James Van Allen Middle School here in Fremont Gap, Iowa, home of the University of Western Iowa. Go Cougars!

And I am in love.

There’s no girl involved. No, I am in love with Theatre. Theatre with a capital T. (And an RE at the end instead of an ER.)

I won’t give Duncan all the credit, but seeing a kid my own age so talented, I pictured me on stage, too. Every time I saw him in a show I wanted it even more.

Well, well. Wyatt Appleby is something else, isn't he? What a voice. I love that he knows exactly what time he turns twelve. I love that he spells Theatre with a capital T and an "re" at the end. I love that he decided to become an actor at the ripe old age of six. And the way he proclaims he’s in love … he clearly has a flair for drama. Terrific!

My thoughts, fairly picayune: (1) I’d save the “better known as FGCT” for later in the story. Got in the way a bit for me here in the first paragraph. (2) I think in that last paragraph it should be “I pictured myself….”

Overall: Not sure what a "theatre novel" is, but so far, so good! I definitely want to continue reading about this kid. Regardless of the plot, the theme, the story arc … your writing and voice are enough to draw me in. (Of course, the plot, theme and story arc all do need to be there in the final analysis.)

Declaration (Young Adult), by Cyndy

This isn't my story. Senior year, I was just the girl that scribbled in the back of the room. I wrote for the school newspaper, Dragon's Fire, reporting on homecoming preparations, chess club, the demands for more student parking on campus. The job came with the title Editor-in-Chief, one of those nobody positions that looks great on college applications.

My real claim to fame was being Abby's best friend. She and her boyfriend, Big John, were First Couple at Massey High School. Head cheerleader. Captain of the football team. Luck, or maybe Fate, had seated me behind Abby on our first day of kindergarten. People don't think much about those little things that day to day change the course of your life. But that friendship made me an insider for the next thirteen years. It was the reason I knew all the players in the drama to come. Big John and Abby. Siggi. Crazy Sam. Benji Franks.

It was Benji who told me: "Marcy, there are the immovable, the movable, and those who move. And in addition, there are those who move nothing more than a pencil, but who may be the strongest movers of all."

So, although this isn't my story, maybe it is my story to tell. And here it is: the events, the personalities, and maybe some commentary on life at Massey High as it unfolded that year. As I remember, it all started in Ms. Wheatley's Honors American Revolution class.

OK, this one went beyond my 12-word limit too, but hey, it’s my blog, and I can bend the rules when I want.

I can tell right off the bat I’m going to like Marcy. Partly because of my journalism background, I’m sure, but also because she knows her place in the world. She’s not a mover or a shaker, but she hangs with people who are and wants to report on them. An unusual viewpoint for us to hear a story from and one that intrigues me.

The writing here is great, very clean and clear. I think my only question is this: Although Marcy sees herself as a “reporter” in this tale, will she also have a stake in it? Because readers don’t care so much about things that happen, they care about the people they happen to. If Marcy is our narrator, I think it will work best if we see that she will in some way be affected by the outcome of events in the story.

Overall: Exceptional writing. I would definitely keep reading.

Thanks to Dhonielle, Lisa, Heather, Steve and Cyndy for allowing me to give my reactions to their first sentences. I invite all visitors to leave your own thoughts in the comments section. Continued best wishes for your works in progress!

Saturday, February 23, 2008

It's a Start: Work in Progress Edition II

Many thanks to those of you who responded to the first edition of It's a Start: Work in Progress and have submitted your first lines for comment! I have received six new "entries" so far, with a possible seventh coming. In the interest of keeping these posts to a reasonable length, I'm going to take a look at the first three on this post and the remainder later in the week.

If you are interested in submitting your novel's beginning for a future edition, please go ahead and leave the first 8-12 lines of your MG or YA work in progress in the comments section or send me a Personal Message via the Verla Kay Blue Boards (where I am known as LindaBudz).

Before we get started, the disclaimer: I'm not an agent or an editor and have no real standing to offer these critiques. My opinion may not reflect the opinion of anyone else in the kid-lit world, much less publishers, so please take my comments for what they are ... one person's reaction.

The Twelfth of Never (Middle Grade), by Brenda

Please make Elvis leave the building. Never mind this song, My Way, is the reason I’m named Presley. Forget I secretly love it. Just not like this, here, now.

The cheap school p.a. speakers crumple Mom’s favorite song like tin foil, then rattle it around the almost-empty cafeteria. And there’s no air, just thickly sweet Snickerdoodle exhaust from the lunch ladies baking at 7:50 a.m. And most of all, outside the far, far double doorway, I keep catching glimpses of Greenhaven Middle School’s Most Popular crowd.

My queasy tummy demands I stay put, even though standing here, next to Mrs. Beemer, will make me more visible to the hall dwellers if they ever come in. We’re on the stage, encircled by chairs. Mrs. Beemer bends to unzip her backpack, and the neckline of her dress sags, revealing her wrinkly chest in a giant bra. Could I feel any more uncomfortable?

She cranes her red face up at me. “Would you be a dear and go round everyone up?”

First let me say, I love the title! And the fact that the MC is named Presley. I also like the details here ... not "cookies" but "Snickerdoodles," not "doors" but "the far, far double doorway." We have sound (a rattling version of "My Way"), smell (the cookies), touch (a queasy stomach) and sight (Mrs. Breemer's wrinkly chest). We also have lots of little conflicts ... the secret love of the song, the embarrassment at seeing the teacher's cleavage, the concern about being spotted on stage by the popular crowd.

A couple of things tripped me up. First, and maybe I should be embarrassed to admit this, but I didn't even realize Elvis did a version of "My Way." I think most people associate that song with Sinatra and so the first paragraph would confuse them. Of course, kids might not even know the song at all and might just figure, OK, that was some old Presley song. So you might be safe. But, unless "My Way" is important and will come into play later, I might suggest substituting a song more strongly associated with The King.

Second, I was taken out of the story a little by the stage. None of my school cafeterias had stages, but maybe some do? Does this caf double as an auditorium at this school? Maybe that becomes clearer in the coming paragraphs.

Overall: I definitely want to read more. I want to know why our MC is on that stage!

Lure of the Moon (YA Fantasy), by Sue

Chapter One: A Time to Run

As Peter raced from the campsite his stomach quivered.
It wasn’t the heat from the cherry sun that had his brain sizzling.
Humiliation and gloom spurred his anger. As Peter ran, he vowed,
"Dad will never get that chance again!"

Hmm. Dad will never get what chance again? This vow definitely pulls me in. And since every kid can relate to feeling furious with his/her parents, this makes a great connection.

This entry was emailed to me in this format. Maybe the line breaks are a product of the email, but I got the impression it's intended to appear this way, a poetry form. Until recently, when I read Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff, I'd have thought such a form would be distracting and tiresome, but in that book, I found I enjoyed it. If this novel is intended to follow that format, I think based on this brief excerpt it can be done well.

The one issue I had here was with the word "sizzling" in relation to the MC's brain. Didn't work for me ... I realize the phrase isn't meant to be literal, but it gave me a gross visual.

Overall: I'm not a big fantasy fan, but I'd keep reading to see where this is going, and, again, I am eager to learn what ill deed Dad has done!

Untitled, by Beth

If Maddrid found him first, the world's death was only a matter of time. The tribunal sat around the fire watching their leader in anticipation.

"He is twelve?" Their leader asked perusing a large file.

"Yes, sir," another replied.

"It says here-"

"It's a lie," The leader gave him a hard look, " I am sure of it, Oralabor."

"Does Maddrid know yet?"

"Not yet."

"Was it an accident?" Oralabor asked referring to the file.

"No, sir. It's his choice. He has had the opportunity."

"We must be sure."

"I am. He is the one. The only one."

OK, again, I'm not big on fantasy, but I am intrigued. What is the deal with this tribunal? Who is Maddrid? Why is he the only one? Who's the twelve year old in the file?

I did have a hard time following who is saying what. I think this needs to be made clear. I especially think we need to know which of these speakers is the MC and what his/her perspective and place within the scene is. A respected member of the tribunal? A spectator? Is the MC the "him" in the sentence "If Maddrid found him first ...." or is the twelve year old? I do appreciate the sense of mystery here, but I need a little more clarity, if that makes sense. Some internal monologue on the part of the MC might be a good way to do this.

Another potential issue, and this is something I learned from Miss Snark, is that big dangers such as the death of the world tend to interest readers less than personal dangers. That's not to say the world can't be in danger, but we also want to know what's at stake for your MC.

Overall: I'd like to have some more clarity, but again, I'm very intrigued to know who these characters are.

May thanks to Brenda, Sue and Beth for putting their work out here. I hope others will chime in with their impressions of these first sentences in the comments section. Best wishes for your works in progress!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

In Memoriam: A Real Sweetheart

Rest in Peace
September 18, 1993 - February 20, 2008

Update: Many thanks to big sister Deb for emailing this video she shot last summer:

Saturday, February 16, 2008

You Gotta Have the Passion

I've been down sick this week, so I've made the best of it by getting some reading done. In the last three days, I've finished two terrific examples of kid lit, The Puzzling World of Winston Breen by Eric Berlin and A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban.

Eric Berlin is a New York Times crossword creator, which makes him, like, practically a god. The fact that he can do that and write a fun middle-grade mystery with puzzles scattered throughout it makes him, like, actually a god. If you or someone you know enjoys puzzles, particularly word puzzles, you'll want to get your hands on this book.

Linda Urban is not a New York Times crossword creator. For all I know, she may not even be able to solve them. Nonetheless, she is a goddess. Crooked is one of the best books I have ever read. Ever. And I've read a lot of books. The writing, the humor, the story arc ... everything about the book is perfect, crooked or otherwise.

One thing these books have in common (besides being written by higher beings) is the fact that they tell the story of a character who has a passion. Winston Breen is passionate about puzzles. Zoe Elias is passionate about playing the piano (well, even if she is stuck playing the organ).

Whether or not we can relate to each kid's passion (puzzles ... oh, yeah! pianos ... not so much), we like to see it. It makes the character interesting, a little different from his or her peers. It gives the character strength and spunk. It provides a path for conflict and growth. It makes us care about them and root for them.

What is your main character's passion?

Saturday, February 9, 2008

It's a Start: Work in Progress Edition

Welcome to the first "Work in Progress" edition of It's a Start! Instead of examining the first sentences of published books, as previous editions have done, this entry will take a look at the first 8 to 12 sentences of manuscripts currently "under construction" by fellow kid-lit writers.

While I look forward to sharing my thoughts on their first sentences, the real value to these writers will be in getting multiple reactions to their work. So please, leave your comments. (Note: honest, constructive criticism and/or kudos are welcome; snark is not.)

Disclaimer: I'm not an agent or an editor and have no real standing to offer these critiques. My opinion may not reflect the opinion of anyone else in the kid-lit world, much less publishers, so please take my comments for what they are ... one person's reaction.

Shift (Young Adult), by Kate

I had six weeks to come up with a plan for getting to California. It took me six days. Oh God, I was really doing this.

With a deep breath and a half-hearted prayer, I made my way through the airport terminal. It had seemed so simple when I first saw the flier for the sophomore summer research trip -- a perfect cover for finding Clara. Unfortunately, my internal alarm hadn’t blared until I stepped off the plane that brought me from St. Louis to Crescent City. Not good.

Outside the airport, a grungy looking guy in a dark coat knocked into me and mumbled an apology as he passed. I jerked my bag onto my shoulder and scanned the area for a cab. Alone and cursing myself, I hesitated when a taxi pulled up to the curb.

“Hey, miss! You getting in or what?” The cab driver’s voice jolted me out of my panic.

Lots of good stuff here. Kate does a great job of revealing just enough about what is happening to pique our interest without laying out all her cards. I want to find out who Clara is and why the MC is looking for her.

I get the sense that the MC is enterprising and headstrong, and maybe a tad rash. What might have taken six weeks only took her six days ... but now she's having second thoughts. In any case, enterprising and headstrong are great traits for an MC, and being a tad rash is certainly a believable flaw for a teen.

Which brings me to something else Kate nails here ... weaving in a number of background details without being too obvious. We know that our MC is a sophomore (though it's not yet clear whether in high school or college), that it is summer, that she is from St. Louis, and that she is now in Crescent City, California. Well done!

Now, for the one thing that bothers me a bit here ... and again, maybe it's just me, so I'll be interested in seeing others' comments: Our MC refers to "my internal alarm," "cursing myself" and "my panic." These are strong words and emotions, which is great for indicating high stakes, but I don't feel as though I quite understand what she is referring to. Why is she feeling this way? Because she is rethinking the wisdom of finding Clara? Because she regrets traveling across country by herself? Or is there something else? Raising questions is good, but in this case, her sense of alarm leaves me feeling a bit lost and uncomfortable ... like I'm missing something. I would prefer to see a hint of context for it.

Overall: A terrific entry. I would definitely read on!

The Boy Who Ruined Everything (Middle Grade), by Dawn
A jet of flame shot past the window of Miss Morris’s fifth grade class. Everyone turned an accusatory look at David, who shrunk in his seat. Miss Morris barely hesitated as she wrote her sentence on the board, underlining the vocabulary words in pink chalk. “Louis, please read the sentence aloud for the class.”

David pretended to check his homework as Louis Corning stood up and recited, “The minions of Darkness ask for due penance and are paid a yearly tribute.” Louis had been David’s best friend back in first grade, but that was before. A lot of things had been different before.

Hmm, intriguing scene here. I am guessing we are in some sort of pseudo-fantasy world, maybe George-Orwell-meets-kid-lit? I want to know who the minions of Darkness are, why Louis and David are no longer best friends and what the heck David has to do with the shooting flame.

My only criticism is that I am not 100 percent sure who our MC is, though I am pretty certain it's David. I think my confusion has something to do with the actions in this scene. We have everyone turning, then David shrinking, then Miss Morris writing, then David pretending and then Louis standing up and reciting. It leaves me feeling as though we're bouncing around the room a bit much, and I might like to stay in David's head a little more. It's the last two sentences that most grab me and make me start to care about him. Maybe it could use just one or two more sentences after David shrinks in his seat so that we can focus on how he is feeling and what he is thinking.

Overall: Again, intriguing! I'm hooked!

Untitled (Middle Grade), by Lindsey

Not many people know that goat's eyeballs will bounce like one of those tiny super balls if they get away from  you. By my stepmother's scream this afternoon, I figured she didn't know either. But hearing Meredith's glorious, glass-shattering wail was worth all the time it took to gather up all the eyeballs that had ricocheted off the kitchen walls and then wrap them back up in the brown butcher paper.

Meredith held her neck with one trembling hand and her breath sounded like the brown rabbit I found hurt on the side of the road last week. (The rabbit didn't make it, but I wound up drawing a picture of its feet once it had passed on.) "Till...," she said, "you...should label time."

I started out the kitchen. "People don't usually snoop through my stuff."

Yes, the goat's eyeballs are mine, and they are most definitely real. My best friend, Benji, gave them to me when two of the old goats died on his dad's farm. They give me all kinds of animals parts when they're available.

OK, in the interest of full disclosure: I used to belong to a critique group with Lindsey and helped crit a funny MG manuscript of hers that I adored.

This is a new one for me, though, and so my first reaction when reading this is: More goats? Girl, what is it with you and the goats?

My next reaction is that I think I would once again adore this MS and this character. Till has a wonderful voice and comes across as funny and spunky. And this scene is plain funny.

We know that Till lives in a rural area and that she is not terribly fond of her stepmother. And we know these things because Lindsey has shown us, not because she has told us.

Potential thoughts for making it stronger: First, grammatically, I think we need to pluralize the goats and the eyes and the bouncing balls so they're all in sync in that first sentence. A couple of tweaks gives us: "Not many people know that goats' eyeballs will bounce like those tiny super balls if they get away from you."

Second, I didn't care for the parenthetical aside about the rabbit's feet. It took me out of this scene just as I was starting to get into it. I'd ditch it.

Finally, a question for Linds: Do you know for a fact that goats' eyes bounce? Cuz somebody out there is gonna know, so you want to make sure. And if you do know it for a fact ... um, how?!?

Overall: Lindsey's doing it again!

Untitled (Young Adult), by CC

If it wasn't for Kathleen O'Grady I wouldn't have this job at all, so I couldn't knock her for being an hour late with dinner, though it meant I'd have to take the bus back to my gangster Baltimore neighborhood instead of catching a ride with my cousin, Murphy. I would've blown it off, left, but Kathleen was bringing me college brochures and there was mention of a surprise as well. Last time she had a surprise I got an extra buck an hour pay raise.

Four weeks ago, just as school let out for the summer, Murphy got me on at the lawn care crew where he worked. His crew wore matching green T-shirts that read "Lawn Care, LLC," and, as the foreman, Murphy got to drive the kick-*** company truck, rows of mowers trailing behind in the flatbed, to their different jobs. I'd been tempted to take the wheel a few times, but I'd never been on Murphy's **** list before and I didn't want to be. That thick Irish body of his was apt enough to offer quite a beating. I'd seen him break someone's jaw with a single hit. Mostly, though, he was low-key. Minded his business. Worked and stayed out of trouble. Murphy was my favorite person in the whole world.

I like the voice here and the fact that we're easing into this character's world. Lives in a gangster neighborhood, works a summer job with a lawn care company, thinking about college. Admires his (her?) tough but quiet boss. Seems smart but not averse to street language. (And forgive my censorship, but I'm trying to overcome a black mark here.) We have no hint yet about the problem the MC faces, but this piece feels more literary to me, so I'm good with that.

Suggestions: Technically, the third word in the first sentence should be "weren't." Of course, this is written in first person, and maybe the main character wouldn't say that. I struggle with whether to make sure things are grammatically correct in my own writing, which also tends to be in first person, but I usually err on the side of being correct (occasional colloquialisms, slang and "teen talk" excepted).

I wondered whether the MC would refer to his/her neighborhood as "my gangster Baltimore neighborhood"? Do people who live in gangster neighborhoods think of them that way? I imagine some do, and that it depends on the person and the circumstances. My thought is that because this person refers to it that way, he or she is angry about the gang activity.

Finally, I like the second paragraph, but the first phrase, "Four weeks ago...." made me brace myself for backstory. My initial reaction was along the lines of, "Oh no, we're one paragraph into the opening scene and she's giving us backstory?" As I read on, I found the paragraph interesting and relevant, so it didn't bother me, so I'd suggest maybe flipping that first sentence around: "Murphy got me on at the lawn care crew four weeks ago, just as school let out for the summer."

Overall: I want to know more about this person and his/her life, which I'm certain is very different from my own. I'm reading on!

Many thanks to the four talented writers who agreed to participate in this exercise! I hope this is helpful, and I hope many of you will share your reactions to their first sentences. What do you like? What could be improved? Do you agree with my comments or am I out in left field? Let’s hear it!

Monday, February 4, 2008

King of Kong: A Film Full of Characters

What can we learn from a documentary about creating heroic heroes and villainous villians? Quite a lot, it turns out, if that documentary is The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.

If you have not yet seen this movie, which examines two men's quest to prove themselves as all-time champions at Donkey Kong and which achieved a near-perfect rating at Rotten Tomatoes, please go out and rent it this weekend. You'll be glad you did. (Though you will begin to question what is wrong with Hollywood and the American public and the whole darn world that we are spending millions of dollars producing and watching utter crap when movies like this are out there just waiting to be made and seen, but that's a rant for a whole 'nother post.)

So, anyway ... back to the topic of drawing sympathetic heroes and hiss-worthy villains. Here are some lessons learned from this small masterpiece of the big screen:

Paint your hero as an underdog and your villain as an, er, overdog. The directors spend most of the first 10 minutes of the movie regaling us with tales of Billy's accomplishments at Donkey Kong and his renown among classic video fanatics. (Note: At this point, we don't know enough to dislike Billy. We don't know much about him at all, other than the fact that he can play some serious Kong.)

Then, the directors key the mournful music and switch to a profile of Steve, a down-and-out husband and father of two who was recently laid off from his job and has never quite reached the pinnacle of any of his exploits, whether they be athletic, musical or professional. As he takes stock of his life, Steve seizes upon one simple yet challenging goal: to beat the all-time high score in Donkey Kong set by Billy 25 years earlier.

Do not make your hero perfect. However, do make sure the reader can understand, relate to and sympathize with his or her flaws. We root for Steve in part because of his weaknesses. His brother tells us he has "social hangups," his wife says he is obsessive-compulsive and his mother surmises that he may suffer from a mild form of autism. Each of these traits serve dual purposes in this film: They help us understand why Steve is so competitive at Donkey Kong and they make us care about him.

Give your villain an unfair advantage. A major theme that keeps reappearing in this movie is the fact that Steve's every score and every game are scrutinized to the nth degree, while Billy gets a free pass and literally "mails them in." At one point, the video game "referee" comes right out and admits it is to his organization's advantage to have Billy as reigning champ because of his fame among the gamers' subculture and his supposed charisma.

It also helps if your villain is a megalomaniac. Why not have your villain compare himself, his skills and his reputation to, say, God, Helen of Troy, the United States of America, Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Red Baron and even the abortion issue? Right, right, that would be way over the top. No one would believe someone could have such an overblown opinion of himself. Only....

Now, before all you Billy fans out there (are there any Billy fans out there, cuz if there are, I'd like to meet you) comment with complaints, I do recognize that the directors of the movie edited this a la "Survivor" and some other reality shows so as to make one character come across as sympathic as possible and the other to appear, well, as big an idiot as possible.

But it sure makes for some great entertainment and some masterful storytelling. Let's hope we can do half as well in our fiction.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Lessons on Great Starts

UPDATE 1: Instead of the first sentence of the works in progress, I am going to ask for the first 8-10 sentences, as I think that will give us a better feel for the writing and the story. So far I have five writers interested in participating. If you'd like to participate as well, please leave a comment with your submission or with info on how to reach you. Thanks!

UPDATE 2: Nathan Bransford has picked the finalists for his First Pages Contest. Alas, my entry is not among them. But some truly amazing first pages are! Check them out and vote for your favorite here.

UPDATE 2(b) Nathan just posted the winner of the contest ... very much a deserving first page! And, he named his top 10, including mine! Yippee!

A two-part post here. First, I wanted direct any of you who are interested in writing novels to some fantabulous advice regarding first pages being doled out over on agent Nathan Bransford's blog (the advice begins about a third of the way down in that entry).

Nathan is in the midst of judging a first-pages contest in which he received a mind-numbing 620 or so entries (including mine ... you can go here and do a search for "lindabudz" if you're inclined to check out the first page of my current WIP). Warning: It might take a minute for that page to load. Did I mention he had 600+ entries?

Anyway, reading all those openings has led Nathan to a few revelations about what works and what doesn't. And if you scan through a handful of them, you'll probably see what he means. Interesting stuff.

Secondly, in a brouhaha too convoluted to discuss here, many entrants expressed a desire in Nathan's comments section for critiques from their fellow writers.

This gave me an idea, and so I've decided to institute a new edition of my "It's a Start" feature in which I will give my opinions on the first sentence (or so) of kid lit writers' works in progress. This will not replace the regular "It's a Start" feature but will be posted in addition to it on occasion. I've had some interest from a couple of writers and am hoping it will build on itself.

If you'd like your first sentence(s) included, please leave me a comment and I'll work out the logistics from there. Thanks!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Mind of the Tween Boy

What does the "tween" boy think? How does he act? What motivates him?

Never having been a tween boy, I've never been quite sure about this, and the lack of major boy characters in my novels reflects this gap in my knowledge.

This weekend, however, I took a brief journey into the weird and wondrous world of the tween male while chaperoning a ski trip.

Pile four 13- and 14-year-old boys into your car for a two-hour ride back and forth to the mountains and blend into the background as any self-respecting chaperone is expected to do, and you have a ready-made laboratory for monitoring the behavior of this shadowy subculture.

Here's what I took away from the trip:

  1. Having the right songs downloaded onto one's iPod is of paramount importance to today's tween boy.
  2. Having the appropriate ring-tone song choice matched to the appropriate caller on one's cell phone is of paramount importance to today's tween boy.
  3. Anything and everything related to music and the devices used to play music are of paramount importance to today's tween boy.
  4. Tween girls come in a distant second to music in terms of importance to today's tween boy.
  5. Tween boys talk about tween girls in much the same way tween girls talk about tween boys, though some of the language used may be different (e.g., "You should totally go after Kayley, dude. She was looking at you all night. Seriously.")
  6. Tween boys can pack away a lot of food.

True, this is not enough to build a novel around. Four hours in the car with four boys hardly makes me an expert. But at least I know now to add some rock band t-shirts to my minor boy characters' wardrobes.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

5,000 and Counting

Last night Just Like the Nut got it's 5,000th visitor! And that visitor was ... Jay Asher! Or at least, according to SiteMeter, it was someone from Jay's hometown who entered here by way of a comment I made on a kid lit message board about his book, so I think it was him. Jay also happens to be the first person who ever left a comment on my blog.

So, in Jay's honor, I want to direct everyone who stops by here to today's Disco Mermaids blog post, where Jay celebrates some exciting news about his book. If you're into kid lit but haven't yet read 13 Reasons Why, well, you are now officially "out of it." Jay's book is going to a second printing less than three months after its release. (Want to know what the first print run was? Check out that link!)

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

How Creative Are You?

You Are 65% Creative

You are beyond creative. You are a true artist - even if it's not in the conventional sense of the word.

You love creating for its own sake, and you find yourself quite inspired at times.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Where's Linda?

Time for a little game, sports fans!

I've been out of town on business for a few days. Can you tell from these shots where I am?

Here's my husband, Joe, sitting beside me on the trolley. If you're able to guess based on this shot, you must be either (a) someone who already knew where I was going this week or (b) a stalker.

An artist's street display. If you can guess by this shot, you must be either (a) a native of this city or (b) the artist.

Street performers. If you can guess by this shot, you must be either (a) a frequent tourist to this city or (b) knowledgeable enough about music to be able to tell what genre this is based on the instruments.

A famous square. If you can guess by this shot, you must either (a) have visited this city at least once or (b) really know your presidential statuary.

A famous cafe known for a certain delicious pastry. If you can guess by this shot, you must either (a) know a little something about U.S. cities or (b) watch too much Food Network.

A typical street scene. If you can tell by this shot, you must be either (a) someone who has seen this city on TV or in photos or (b) a decent guesser. If you cannot yet guess where I am, well, you must either (a) live outside the U.S. or (b) live under a rock.

Me on a famous (or perhaps infamous) street. This one's the giveaway shot.

Ah, yes. Laissez les bon temps roulez!

Monday, January 7, 2008

It's a Beautiful Thing

Sorry I've been so remiss in posting this week. I want to post, I really do. It's just that I don't have time. And that's because ...

I've started a new novel! It's still too early to tell whether this one is going to go anywhere, but for now, I'm having fun with it. I'm on the fourth chapter, which is enough to know I'm into it but not enough to know whether this could be The One.

I know, I know ... I hate it when people get so wrapped up in writing their new book that they neglect their friends. And you just know that if I get to chapter seven or eight and decide I'm tired of it, or worse, I hate it, or even worse, I like it but can't make it work for some reason that isn't my fault and isn't the book's fault but just is, well, you know I'm going to come crying back here, looking to my blogging buddies for support.

So let me apologize right here and now. I hope you'll understand. I hope you'll be happy for me. Most of all, I hope you find something like this for yourself. It's a beautiful thing.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Now I've Seen It All

Just when you think the Wide World of Publishing couldn't get any stranger ... a friend of my husband's just got him a subscription to this.

I have to say, my Dad will love the piece in the Holiday 2007 edition on beagling.

It's a Start, Part VI

It's a Start is an occasional feature that takes a look at the first sentence (or so) of books picked randomly from the Acorn bookshelves. You can find Parts I-V here.

We have a great crop today, some real winners! As always, if you feel differently, let your voice be heard in the comments section! Note: Maximum number of stars = 5.

You are not going to believe me, nobody in their right minds could possibly believe me, but it's true, really it is! When I woke up this morning, I found I'd turned into my mother. Freaky Friday, by Mary Rodgers

Well, they say you should start the story at the point where something unusual happens to your protagonist. This'll do! We have voice and we have conflict. Oh, do we have conflict. A teenager's worst nightmare. Stars: ****

You'd think I could spend the night at a friend's house without finding myself knee-deep in pig poop. Sammy Keyes and the Curse of Moustache Mary, by Wendelin Van Draanen

Knee-deep in pig poop? Hold my calls, honey, I have some reading to do! Stars: *****

From his perch behind the clock, Hugo could see everything. The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick

This is the first written sentence of Chapter One of "Hugo Cabret," but as anyone familiar with the book knows, it is hardly the beginning. We have already followed Hugo through a Paris train station and up the steps to the clock through Selznick's illustrations. Still, it's a great first sentence. Why is Hugo perched behind a clock? And what is meant by "everything"? I have a feeling we're about to find out. Stars: ****

RULES FOR DAVID. Chew with your mouth closed. Say "thank you" when someone gives you a present (even if you don't like it). When someone says "hi," you say "hi" back. Rules, by Cynthia Lord

If you haven't read "Rules," these first sentences appear as part of a handwritten list placed before the first chapter, as a sort of prologue. (And there are five additional rules on the list, for a total of eight.) It's a perfect beginning for this book, for a number of reasons. First, it grabs the reader's attention. A handwritten note is unusual and has a very personal feel to it. Second, though the first two rules are ordinary enough and might be applicable to any child (heck, I have to be reminded sometimes, and I'm, er, older than a child), when you get to the third rule, you start to wonder about David. Who is he, and why does he need to be told such a thing? And third, this list sets the stage for the book as a whole, in which David's rules play a major thematic role. Stars: *****

I'll be a millionaire by the time I turn thirty-five. Successful. Independent. Abbey Garner -- Self-made financial genius. Beauty Shop for Rent, by Laura Bowers

Again, this is the start of a brief prologue to the book. I like this because it tells us a lot about the character, and it makes us want to learn more about her. And even though technically it is "telling" and not "showing," it sort of "shows" us that this is one determined, self-confident girl, by virtue of the fact that she would make these predictions so matter-of-factly. Stars: ***

Bonus Start: Hypothetical Question of the Week: If you were forced to have an extra body part implanted on your back, which would you choose? A finger, ear, breast or nose? Beauty Shop for Rent, by Laura Bowers

I just had to add the first sentence of Chapter One of Laura's book as a bonus. While the first sentence of her prologue draws us in and makes us want to learn more about her character, the first sentence of the body of the book is just plain funny. And intriguing. And it's one of those probing first sentences that really makes the reader stop and think. (For the record, I'd go for a finger ... that way I could scratch my own back!) Stars: ****