Sunday, December 23, 2012

Happiest of Holidays

I'm going on a short hiatus while we move into our new home (yay!) in Bozeman, Montana, and I squeeze in time to finish pages on a middle grade novel. I'll be back the first week in January with a final revision post and some new things to bring to everyone.

So, the happiest of holidays and warmest wishes of this blessed season to you all. Just for fun, here's a look at our new living room only a couple of weeks ago - now it's filled with boxes. Presents under the "tree!"

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Purely Personal: On Taking a Stand

I love writing for children. I’ve often thought that it’s because I’m reliving something from my childhood. But I also see that it’s because children ask the most direct questions, some of which I cannot answer. I’m trying to answer them for the children who read my books and for the child inside me.

So my question, right now, in the wake of Sandy Hook, is: why?

Why are we here? Why do innocent children die? Why do we suffer? Why does discourse lose civility, and why can we not find common ground?

I write for children hoping to find an answer to these questions.

I’m deeply proud to be a member of the kidlit community that asks and seeks to answer these questions. This is a passionately committed community that strives to protect children, to engage children, to help children find answers to the fundamental questions, and especially to the central question: why?

I don’t have answers, but I do have thoughts. And one of these thoughts is that if I can’t answer the questions, I can do something.

I can take a stand.

There is no more time in our society to look away. Too many children suffer. We can no longer look away from child exploitation. We can no longer look away from child slavery and forced child marriage. We can no longer look away from the violence promulgated by the entertainment industry aimed at children. We can no longer look away from the ease of access to weapons that kill the most innocent with impunity.

I can no longer look away.

I am taking a public stand against access to assault weapons.

I believe there is no earthly or God-given reason that a semi-automatic weapon capable of killing scores of people – of killing twenty innocent children – even when wielded by an inexperienced shooter should be available to any person, at any time.

I’m taking a stand in favor of gun control.

I’m also taking a stand in favor of hope.

This is the time of year when we all look to the most generous of human ideas: that birth is a gift and yet that our life may require sacrifice, self-denial, and loss. Human generosity – that the gift of life does require sometimes overwhelming sacrifice – gives me hope.

A teacher who barricades a door and loses her life in the bargain has sacrificed everything for her children, and this gives me deep grief, but also hope. A first responder who carries the unimaginable burden of doing a job well in the face of personal horror gives me hope. A nation that takes stock and may be awakening to a new reality gives me hope.

Why are we here? What is the meaning of life?

More importantly, why are you here? What kind of stand can you take – can we take – that will make a difference to the children today and the children of the future?

This is an important question, and I’m asking myself this question every hour. And I’m taking a stand. I’m standing up for the children. 

I hope you'll stand with me.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Jingle Bell Hop! Blog Hop Post

I was tapped by my friend Jan Godown Annino to participate in a blog hop. In case you don’t know Jan’s work, she’s the author of an acclaimed picture book biography, SHE SANG PROMISE, illustrated by Lisa Desimini. It would be a wonderful addition to any library.

I’m answering here the questions that she passed along to me. And I thought I’d talk about one of my WIPs. I usually keep this stuff to myself until the very end, so as not to jinx anything. Fingers crossed!

What is the working title of your book?


Where did the idea come from for the book?

I had a dream that I was suspended in a place between life and death, and when I woke up, I knew I had to write about how that felt. This novel is a bit dark and dreamlike.

What genre is your book?

Middle grade fantasy.

What is the synopsis of the novel?

Jake, a boy who is trying to deal with a school bully, causes an accident that renders his sister Eliza unconscious and near death. Jake is told that if he sells his soul he can rescue her from the Netherworld, the place between life and death. He agrees; but his mission is not as simple as it would seem. By entering the Netherworld Jake sets in motion other and bigger events. Jake and Eliza and the Netherworld guardian Mab must find a way to save Eliza, Jake’s soul, and the Netherworld itself.

How long did it take to write the first draft?

I’ve got a very rough first draft that took me about four months to write. But most of that draft will disappear...I started the novel as a workshop piece at Vermont College of Fine Arts and it grew.

What other books are comparable to this book?

Middle grade fantasy is booming and rich at the moment - something that excites me greatly. I’m reading THE PECULIAR by Stefan Bachmann, and just finished GOBLIN SECRETS by William Alexander, and I think they both have things in common with THE NETHERWORLD. And I love Lauren Oliver’s fantasies – especially LIESL AND PO.

I’ve tagged my friends and fabulous authors Bethany Hegedus and Joy Preble, so please check their blogs in the next couple of weeks for their blog hop posts!

Monday, December 3, 2012

Revision, Part 2

Last week I talked about a few of the more global approaches that I take while revising a manuscript in progress; this week I’ll try and finish up with the following:

  • how I use checklists
  • my favorite workbooks
  • dedicated passes

As I move into the middle to later stages of revision, I like to use checklists to remind me to pay attention to my own personal quirks – the tics I’ve developed as a writer that weaken my writing. Because my first drafts are so organic, I tend to be lazy at times – I’m paying more attention to getting stuff down on paper than I am on the smaller issues. So this mid-revision process is truly important.

Here’s a personal checklist that I developed a long time ago:
  • Find all the "ly" words (i.e., adverbs) by using the Word "find" feature and eliminating most - if not all.
  • Search for "it is/was" and "there is/was". It's almost always stronger to use different phrasing. (Or, by example... “Phrases are almost always stronger when they don’t begin with ‘it's’.”)
  • Search for places where my character "felt," "saw," "looked," etc. When I'm really inside my character, those soft verbs aren't necessary. Much better to show the event or action without the distancing verbs.
  • Search for sentence "flow." In particular, I look sentence by sentence for stronger first and last words. First and last are the most important words in the sentence.
  • Search for passive voice and other indicators of "telling" (like, helping verbs, "to be" verbs).
  • Try to make sure there's tension on every page. 
  • Remove dialogue tags wherever possible. Even "said" can get in the way when only two people are talking.
  • Make sure gesture substitutes for internal thoughts wherever possible.
  • Look for those things that popped up in my subconscious and may be amplified - recurring metaphors or images.
  • my own workbook in the company of the "greats"
  • Watch for unintentional repetition of certain words and phrases. 

I have several workbooks that are particular favorites, and at some stage of revision I’ll work through some or all of the exercises within:

As you can see, I’ve made up my own workbook that includes my checklists and some others I’ve collected at conferences and workshops. In that workbook is a list of the things I look for in my dedicated passes.

At some point near the end of the revision process, I’ll do a dedicated pass for things like:
  • smooth and interesting transitions between chapters
  • magnification of character traits
  • items of metaphoric significance or resonant setting details or thematic elements that can be amplified

These dedicated passes allow me to focus on just one thing at a time. Sometimes, in a more complicated story, I may have to do a dedicated pass for small items like eye or hair color, or prop details.

What this all means is that I often do 15 or 20 or more revisions for each work. Sometimes things change radically from revision to revision; sometimes I'm changing just one thing, albeit important (to me, at least.) The later revisions usually take only a short amount of time - maybe only a day each. But this process works for me.

Next week I’ll be participating in a blog hop – but the following week I’ll talk about the most important aspect of revision: inspiration.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Revision! Tools and Techniques

Now that NaNoWriMo is almost over, it’s time for the next step in the process...revision!

Some of you might think that revision is a dirty word. It’s not fun to go over and over something – especially if there seems to be no end in sight.

But I actually prefer revision to writing the first draft. I often don’t plumb my character’s depths until about draft 3; and the plot is pretty messy until draft 6 or 7; and it isn’t until the umpteenth draft that I can play with fun things like language and theme and tone and detail.

In a couple of weeks I’ll talk about holding fast to your initial vision, as you “re-envision” your manuscript, but this week and next I thought I’d share some of the things I do when I revise and some of the tools I find most helpful.

There are 5 specific tools that I use when I revise:

1.     taking stock of the “big picture”
2.     visual aids (charts, photos, graphs)
3.     checklists
4.     workbooks
5.     dedicated passes

one of my shrunken manuscripts
Here are the first two of these tools as I use them:

1. Taking stock of the “big picture”

The first thing I do when I’ve finished what I consider the initial draft is put it aside. Not for too long – I need the story’s momentum to keep moving forward – but I give it a few days rest, letting it marinate, and I do something completely different (like eat chocolate...)

After those few days I pick up the manuscript again and read it through, cover to cover. In this process I try to read aloud – there’s something about reading words out loud that allows me to find things that don’t work or sound awkward. (Yes, I get pretty hoarse.) I also try not to stop in the middle and change something huge – I’ll make notes in the margins as I go, but I want to get a feel for the entire scope of the story.

My favorite big picture technique is Darcy Pattison’s “shrunken manuscript”, which allows me to visualize the story at a very large scale. I highly recommend that you find a copy of Darcy’s Novel Metamorphosis, as it contains several similar techniques and one of the others might strike your fancy. But here’s the gist of the shrunken manuscript:
  • Shrink your manuscript to 8 point font, single spacing, with no chapter breaks - you'll be able to read it, just enough to know where you are
  • Highlight areas for different aspects of the manuscript – character development, description, subplots, moments of tension (or lack thereof), etc., etc.
  • Stand back and just look 

You’ll see from that distance where you may be missing details of character that are crucial, where your subplots flag or disappear, where you’ve dropped the tension, and so on. This is a great way to discover if your manuscript is too description-heavy, or too action-oriented, or where you may have lost track of a character (as I did while writing my first novel, Faithful, and a main character at that!)

my plot board with notes and Martha Alderson plotline
2. Visual aids

I’m a visual person, and at some point in crafting a story the only way I can see whether I’ve developed it properly is to see it visually – usually on the wall of my office, where I can spread out the timelines and plotlines together with notes and photographs.

A tool I’ve recently become fond of is Pinterest, and I’ve created boards for each of my novels, allowing me not only to see the pictures that are inspirational to me but also to share those with readers as they develop.

plot planner in miniature
By far my favorite visual aid is Martha Alderson’s PlotWhisperer plotline (do check out her Plot Whisperer books and other tools.) I’ve made a corkboard with the plotline marked in masking tape, and from there I can use sticky notes to jot down scenes, emotional changes, conflict. Small sticky notes are perfect because I can’t write too much – just enough to direct my thoughts. Plus, I can work in color for different aspects of the story and that appeals to my visual sense.

On that board I also post head shots of my characters, and eventually I’ll post a miniature version of Martha’s plotline, one that I’ve integrated with the hero’s journey and other turning points.

Next week I’ll talk about the other revision tools I find helpful – but please share yours here, too!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Reading Like a Writer: Maggie Stiefvater’s THE SCORPIO RACES and Magical Realism

Magical realism is a phrase I never completely understood until I recently read Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races. The term seems contradictory: how could a realistic story contain magical elements? What does a writer do to introduce those elements without throwing the novel into the terrain of fantasy? I suppose some readers will argue that The Scorpio Races is fantasy, but I’m going to take the side of magical realism, and this analysis approaches her fabulous story with that in mind.

Her setting is entirely believable – an island off the coast of, well, something like Ireland. There are references to the mainland, the Atlantic, and America, and the names she uses have that Celtic ring: Finn Connolly, Sean Kendrick, Skarmouth, Thisby. Our heroine’s nickname is Puck, conjuring Shakespeare. People live in proper houses, drink in pubs, drive Morris cars, raise sheep; the rock-strewn grass hillocks are contained by hedgerows and stone walls. Altogether this is a place we know, its familiarity bred of our familiarity with Anglo-Saxon literature and lore, even if there is one extremely odd thing about this place.

The sea that surrounds the island is inhabited by flesh-eating water horses.

By the time I was ten pages in, I completely believed that Thisbe exists, and that I’d better watch out for those frightening yet beautiful uisce. That this magical element of The Scorpio Races also derives from our Celtic heritage is part of what makes it feel real.

The deadly November races on the backs of the uisce forms the heart of the concept, but this is also a love story, a coming-of-age story, a love-of-horse story, and a triumph of the spirit over soulless financial power. Sean and Puck tell their tales in first person present tense, enhancing the immediacy of both characters and plot: “this is happening to me, and it’s happening right now.” Once we buy into these characters, we buy the whole tale, hook, line, and sinker.

Puck is a game girl with a face full of freckles and unruly hair in the middle of an unruly orphaned life:

For a moment, I see the room like anyone else might see it. It looks like everything around Finn has crawled out of the mouth of the kitchen sink drain. It’s a mess, and we’re a mess, and no wonder Gabe wants to leave.
‘Let’s go,’ I say.

Sean’s voice is hard, born of his hard luck, and he knows horses. He knows horses better than anyone. He’s also a boy of few and well-chosen words:

I slide off her and hand him the reins. He takes them with a puzzled expression on his already puzzling face.
I say, ‘This mare is going to kill someone.’

The strong and enticing Puck and Sean, who are (as the reader sees long before they do) a perfect match, are also so much fun to live with that the story’s magical element is almost unnecessary. As a writer then, I've come to think that the best magical realism must possess this quality: that the realistic aspects of the story are even more engaging than the magical aspects. 

In a true fantasy, our perception of the story itself may be clouded by dwarf behavior, elf antics, or fairy godmother wishes. In magical realism, the author could dispense with the magic – and still have a heck of a great tale. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Stiefvater writes beautifully, conjures a complete and visible world, and that her secondary characters are every bit as engaging as her protagonists.

But I maintain that in order to write great magical realism it is necessary to write a great, rich and complex story that rises above the magic – that the realistic part of the story makes a magic all its own.

My donation drive for the American Red Cross continues all month, including comments on this blog post. Many thanks!!

Monday, November 5, 2012

SIRENS Launch Week, Plus

It's SIRENS launch week and I'm very excited to share my latest work with you. (As a reminder - during the entire month of November, every comment on every post on the Wardrobe elicits a donation to the American Red Cross. Plus you might win a copy of SIRENS! See this post for details.)

Now to the business at hand: my launch post! (I'm excited. Did I mention that?)

One of the most evocative scenes in American fiction takes place in a living room in a Long Island mansion and features two girls, Daisy and Jordan, long-limbed and lounging, dressed in white. The scene is in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY, set in 1925, the year of its publication. Although not historical fiction in the strictest sense, it is fine fiction in the best sense – and it brings to life the Roaring Twenties in America. Great historical fiction brings the past to life. I can't wait for the movie version due out this summer.

I couldn’t be happier that the 20s are experiencing, forgive the pun, a renaissance. Anna Godberson has released the BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS series, and Jillian Larkin has crafted THE FLAPPERS series; Libba Bray has launched THE DIVINERS.

I'm thrilled to have SIRENS join the mix.

When I did my research I was all prepared for flappers and bootleggers, for gangsters (Al Capone) and gorgeous skimpy clothes (Coco Chanel.) Women got the vote, and writers had the Round Table. The 1920s in America was a wild and crazy time of financial boom and liberated behavior, a period when a fluid and mobile society, combined with the freedom afforded by the automobile and the new working middle class, allowed teens to flee from their parents’ Victorian restrictions. Advertising - the "Mad Men" era - was born, in fact, in the '20s. 

Yes, everybody was on board with dancing and drinking (albeit not legally) and public necking. The 1920s in America were Party Time Central.

But the 1920s was also a time of quiet civil unrest and spiritual exploration. The Ku Klux Klan experienced a rebirth, with open marches and anti-black, anti-immigrant posturing. Immigrants of Italian, Irish, and Jewish extraction were pitted against one another and against society in general. A bomb went off on Wall Street in September 1920, targeting the rich capitalists of the stock exchange but killing clerks, runners and stenographers; it was said to be the work of radical Bolshevists, although no clear culprit was ever found. 

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle engaged in a long-running verbal war with his friend Harry Houdini over the question of spiritualism. Houdini was a pragmatist; he knew magic to be a performance. Doyle believed in spirits and the afterlife, and participated in a movement that experienced a resurgence in the 20s.

The parallels between today and the 1920s-1930s are all too evident: the prosperity of the Roaring Twenties echoed in the 1990s boom; the market crash of 1929 and 1930s depression echoed in the 2000s bust. Post-war trauma today found expression first after World War 1; we fear global pandemic today, but the deadly flu pandemic of 1918 killed millions.

Today we recognize the parallels of our own lives with the past, and maybe make sense of the present. I hope that I added to the "making sense" part of it with SIRENS.

Here's the full trailer for SIRENS, thanks to my talented son Kevin: 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Helping After the Storm

I've been feeling helpless since Superstorm Sandy hit one of my favorite places in the world, and I suspect a lot of you share that feeling.

I'm a native New Yorker. I was born in Manhattan and schooled on the upper west side. At various times in life I've lived way downtown near Wall Street, in Greenwich Village, in midtown on the east side, on 79th and Central Park West, and on 111th and Riverside Drive. I have family and friends all over New York and New Jersey, some who are still without power.

A few who've lost everything.

Some generous kidlit folks have already begun to raise funds for the American Red Cross and other organizations. Kate Messner has founded KidLitCares featuring an astonishing array of terrific auction items - you can benefit the Red Cross and win something to help your writing/illustrating career.

My friend Jeri Smith-Ready has taken an inventive approach: you give a little to relief - she suggests the Red Cross, the Humane Society, and AmeriCares - and she'll give you something awesome for your troubles.

Here in the Wardrobe I'd like to offer something, too. For the rest of the month of November, for anyone who comments on any blog post here I'll make a donation to the American Red Cross.

If you tell me you've donated to any Sandy relief organization at all - and I'm going to take it on faith - I'll send you a handful of bookmarks.

At the end of the month, the names of everyone who has commented and donated will be thrown into the hat and the winner will receive a signed copy of SIRENS, which is set in New York City.

All you have to do is comment. And, if you want, make a donation.

Rules, again:

  • For your comment, I'll make a donation to the American Red Cross.
  • For your comment plus your assurance you've made any donation to any relief organization, you get swag plus I make my donation (contact info please so I can get your snail mail addy; US addresses only.)
  • All commenters/donators will be eligible to win a copy of SIRENS.

Thank you.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Interview: Author Sherry Garland

Years ago, when I was starting out, I met several authors who were beyond kind to me. They offered advice and support and never made me feel anything but accepted. One was Kelly Bennett, whom I featured recently, and another was today's guest, Sherry Garland.

Sherry moved to College Station, Texas, from Houston just about the time I was getting started with my writing. She was a real role model - highly successful, having written beautiful books that I continue to admire. And her career continues, through thick and thin, with gorgeous books of all stripes. I'm really pleased to welcome her to my blog. Here's Sherry:

You’ve been a successful author for many years now. Can you tell us a bit about how you began – your early sales, and the books you’ve published?

October, 2012 marks my thirtieth year of being a published author. I have thirty published books, so it averages out to one a year, but in fact there were many “dry” years with no books and some bountiful years of two or more books.

I give credit to my high school English teacher as the person who started me on the long journey to becoming an author. She encouraged me to read great works of literature and to write. She made our senior honors class enter a state-wide essay contest.  I won first place, was in the newspaper, on TV, honored at a banquet and received $100 (that was big bucks back then). She made me feel that I had a talent for writing. I also took journalism and wrote some items for the high school newspaper.

However, it was fifteen years later before I considered writing as a career and joined a writer’s group in Houston. I read tons of how-to-write books and attended conferences. At one conference I met an editor and submitted a proposal to her for a romance novel.  She bought two manuscripts from me (I used a pen name). I didn’t like writing love scenes and the editor was discouraging, so I quit writing altogether and figured my career was over. About five years later, I saw an ad in a writer’s magazine placed by an educational publisher wanting someone to write a children’s NF book about Vietnam. I had never written for children, but I knew a lot about Vietnam because of my friendships with the Vietnamese community in Houston.  That NF book launched my career in the children’s publishing industry. Because of that research, I sold seven books about Vietnam (2 YA, 4 PBs, and 1 NF) plus two magazine stories. Suddenly I was a children’s author!

Please share with us your most recent publications. Can you talk especially about your “Voices of...” collection – how that came into being and what’s planned for the future?

Even though the books are only 40 pages long, they have to be 100% historically accurate. It takes me about one year to do the research then write the book and back matter that includes a 1500 word historical note, glossary of terms and bibliography. Every time I write one, I feel like I have done the equivalent of a master’s thesis! It does make me good at playing Trivial Pursuit.

It started when my editor at Scholastic asked me to write a picture book about The Alamo. I was getting nowhere fast then one day, while sitting in the courtyard of The Alamo, I had a “Eureka” moment: I would tell the story from the perspective of sixteen first person narrative, some real historical figures, some fictitious people. The editor loved it and hired Ronald Himler to do the wonderful illustrations. That book sold very well, in fact this book is used in nearly every elementary school in Texas; it is even sold at the Alamo gift shop. When the Alamo book went out of print, Pelican Publishing, a regional publisher who specializes in southern and southwestern books, reissued it. 

One day the president of Pelican Publishing asked me if I would write a Voices of Gettysburg book using the same 40 page format. It was a topic that worked well with 16 narratives, alternating the POV between Union and Confederate soldiers and citizens. It was illustrated by Judith Hierstein and released in 2010.

Then, I saw a TV documentary about the Dust Bowl and knew it was a topic I had to write about. Being a native Texan, I have many older relatives who lived through the Dust Bowl period. Voices of the Dust Bowl, also illustrated by Judith Hierstein, was released in 2012.

Pelican also asked me to write about the attack on Pearl Harbor. I felt out of my element because I did not know much about WWII.  It was difficult to alternate the POV between Japanese and American narrators, plus get in all the historical data that needed to be presented, but I am happy with the results. The talented Houston artist, Layne Johnson, agreed to do the illustrations. Release date for Voices of Pearl Harbor is spring, 2013. 

Do you prefer to write picture books or novels?

A very tough question.  After 14 novels, I used to consider myself a novelist first and foremost.  I would happily say that it was easier for me to write an entire novel than one picture book. But after 14 picture books, I have become quite fond of the PB genre, too.  Nearly all of mine are historical in nature (except for the folk tales), so it takes a long time for the research. As I get older, I am finding it harder to sit still long enough to write an entire novel. One novel took me three years to research and write, so I want to make sure the novel is something I truly care about before I invest that much time in it.

You clearly love to do research as most of your books have some historical or cultural details. Please talk about how you choose your subjects and how you conduct your research.

Yes, I’m not a sci-fi, fantasy sort of gal.  I write realistic fiction, both historical and contemporary. Of course, all of my historical works, such as the two Dear America books, are inspired by actual historical events Even my contemporary novels have real events as their basis. For Shadow of the Dragon, I was inspired by the news about the beating death of a Vietnamese teenager by a gang of skinheads. For Letters from the Mountain, the idea came from a TV documentary about teens who “huffed” dangerous inhalants. I wrote The Silent Storm after experiencing a hurricane in Houston in 1983.

interior spread from Voices of Pearl Harbor
Because I want the novels to feel “real,” I have to research every aspect of the time period or culture – clothing, housing, language, means of transportation, lifestyles, customs, philosophies, religion – the list goes on and on.

I have two criteria when I choose a subject: 1) I have to love the topic myself and 2) it has to be something that will interest young readers and/or teachers. 

I know you’re something of a “school visit expert.” Do you have any tips or strategies that you can share with readers?

I consider doing school visits much like going into battle. Hope for the best but expect the worst. Be flexible. Don’t lose your cool when things go wrong.  Something will always go wrong – AV mechanical problems, schedule mess-ups, doors locking you out in the rain, fire-drills, kids throwing up on your shoes, and on and on. Always have a written contract that explains what materials are needed, length of presentation, size and age of audience, number of presentations, travel arrangements and fees.  Don’t trust the organizer to remember everything.  Get a schedule ahead of time. Get both school and home phone numbers of the organizer.  I have more information on my website.

What are you working on now?

Two YA novels set in the 1960s; two contemporary middle grade novels; a YA mystery; and a weird YA novella that I am afraid to send out to anyone because it is more edgy than my other works. And lots of picture books.

How can readers learn more about you and your books?

My website is:
My blog is called “Into the Woods We Go”:

Thanks, Sherry! 

Here's one of Sherry's book trailers, this one for The Buffalo Soldier:

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Thank You!!!

This week I want to give a shout-out to some fabulous bloggers who are hosting give-aways and teaser reveals for my newest release SIRENS. You are all my heroes: we authors are forever grateful for the way you help to spread the word about new books.

So, thank you, thank you, a million times thank you! to:

My Friend Amy

Lauren's Crammed Bookshelf

The Compulsive Reader

Emily's Reading Room

The Mod Podge Bookshelf

In Bed With Books

The Story Siren

Poisoned Rationality

Check out the links - some of the contests are still open! I'll have more thank-you's very soon.

And don't miss the Crossroads Blog Tour on now. A bunch of fabulous authors, spearheaded by my friend Judith Graves, are on board that train, including me. Look for lots of paranormals. The grand prize for coming by this tour is a Kindle, preloaded with our books - wow!

We'll all be together for a Twitter chat, hosted by the awesome Mundie Moms, on Monday, October 29 - check it out.

And since this second baby is now out in the world, here's teaser number 2 for SIRENS, with a shout-out to my talented son, Kevin Fox, who makes all my trailers:

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


There are books...and there are books that you want to read and re-read and tell everyone you know that they must read. Sheila O'Connor's KEEPING SAFE THE STARS is an extraordinary middle grade novel that in my opinion everyone must read. Beautifully crafted with believable characters and a heartbreaking rich premise, STARS is a winner.

Sheila is also the author of the highly acclaimed SPARROW ROAD - another must read. I'm so lucky to have Sheila here today to talk about STARS - now, go find this book! Just hang onto your heart.

Congratulations on a terrific second novel! Please give readers a quick synopsis.

Keeping Safe the Stars is the story of three siblings: Pride, Nightingale and Baby Star, who must fend for themselves when their grandfather, Old Finn falls ill.  Raised to be self-reliant, the Stars are determined to survive independently until Old Finn returns.  For the Stars this means selling pony rides and popcorn, a diet of SpaghettiOs and cake, and lots of pluck and courage and adventure.  It’s a book that celebrates the strength and ingenuity of children—how brave they are, how much they can accomplish on their own.  Set in 1974 during the week of Nixon’s resignation, it’s also a story about truth, and family loyalty, and what Publisher’s Weekly so aptly called “the murky territory of morality.” 

I loved the parallels you chose between Pride's tendency to lie and the Nixon resignation. Which came first, your character or the time period?

The characters absolutely came first.  And it wasn’t until Pride went into the local cafĂ© and heard the grown-ups talking about impeachment, that I realized the book was set in that time period.  When I start a book, I start with discovery, and I like to let the story find its own way in the early drafts.  Also, I’m always interested in the ways the conflicts in the larger culture press in on young people’s lives—and how aware young people are of the mistakes that grown-ups make.  I remember being young and trying to make sense of all the drama swirling around Richard Nixon and Watergate. 

Your names and nicknames are fabulous (Woody Guthrie, for instance.) They tell volumes. Is that something that comes to you easily?

I think so—but again, it happens in the early stages, the dream stage of writing, when I’m just trying to be open to the story that’s been given to me, so I’m never consciously aware of significance.   I didn’t know these children, or their pets when the book began, but when I met them, all the names seemed exactly right.  Old Finn named his dog and horses, and I learned about Old Finn through those names.  The children’s nicknames all came from their mother—and it helped me understand the ways in which she loved them, and how much of her they still carry into the world. 

Character is clearly a strength of yours. Is that where you start when you begin a project? And are you a pantser or a plotter?

Ha!  I’ve never heard that term in a long lifetime of writing.  A pantser—someone who writes by the seat of their pants—yes, that’s absolutely me, at least in the early stages of a draft.  I don’t begin a book with plot, I begin with a world, and I enter that world deeply to discover the story.  Here are some people, they must have a problem, what is it?  Of course, as the book progresses, the trouble builds, it has to, and trouble is plot.  I do many many drafts of my books, and plot is important to me, dear to my heart actually, but it does come later.   

How was it writing the second book? Easier? Harder?

I think every book is hard.  This is actually my fourth published novel, my second for readers of all ages, and in between, I’ve written my share of books for both kids and adults that I’ve ultimately shelved.  They’ve all thrilled and exhausted me.  There’s so much unknown in the novel process—I can be 300 pages into a book and still wondering if I have a book. 

But I have a strange story about this particular book.  It was finished, written and rewritten and rewritten, about to be sent to my editor, when suddenly during breakfast with a writing pal, I discovered privately (I didn’t mention it to my companion) that the novel that I’d finished wasn’t what I wanted.  Not at all.  So two days later, I dumped that book into the garbage and started over—started this book that became Keeping Safe the Stars.  You would not recognized the other one. 

Wow. I'm impressed and amazed that you could do that, but the result speaks for itself. How about promotion? How do you manage it?

I try to do the best I can—conferences, school visits, bookstores.  I love to connect with readers and writers of all ages.   Teaching writing to kids and adults, both poetry and fiction, that’s been my life’s work, so I’m always eager to talk to people about writing, literature, the power of story and imagination.   Sparrow Road is just now out in paperback, so it’s making its way into schools and the larger world, and I love to go along with it.   And now I will go out with the Stars.  But I’m also a full-time professor and a writer, so some days it’s a challenge to do it all. 

Please tell readers what is up next for you.

I’m in the process of writing another middle grade novel for Penguin—which is mostly in its secret-even-to-me phase until I’m sure I have it right.  I’m a writer who likes to work alone, with plenty of confusion, until the book is clear in my imagination. 

How can readers find out more about you and your books?

Readers can visit me at  I love to hear from readers, so drop a note. 
Thanks so much, Sheila!

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Gut Shot: Hitting Readers Where it Counts

Okay, disclaimer time: Kelly Bennett is one of my favorite people. She was one of the first published writers who treated me like a equal (when I was a naive newbie). And she's enormously talented, having written acclaimed, fun and charming books like Your Mommy Was Just Like You, Not Norman, Dance Y'all Dance...and many more, including her most recent release One Day I Went Rambling. Plus, she's a Vermont College grad! 

Check out her website at and all her fabulous books.

So when Kelly agreed to write me a guest post I told her to have at it, and she suggested writing about...FOOD. 

Who doesn't like food? (Silly question.) But, how can food be used in story? Here's what Kelly has to say:

Children know food. Eating is something they’ve been doing all their lives. By middle childhood most have accumulated a trove of textural, olfactory, visual, and aural food memories: the crunch of celery, the stinky sock stench of ripe cheese, the sticky spicy-cool sweetness of candy cane, the rasp of dry toast against the roof of a mouth, the slurp of spaghetti, to name a few. They’ve formed opinions about foods and, through the media and stories, have knowledge of foods they’ve never experienced personally. Additionally, they’ve amassed food memories, some with strong emotions attached (think mother’s milk, birthday cake, “clear your plate” and “no dessert until you…”). Why not draw on what readers already know—food—to connect them with your characters and spice up your stories? In other words: Aim for the gut!

Here are some examples to get you Thinking Food:

Plot: Each of us spends “more than fifteen full days a year doing nothing but eating” (Food Rules by Bill Haduch), so at its most basic food plays a central role in reader’s lives. Use it in character’s lives, too. Food issues, the quest for food, preparation of food, lack, need, or abundance of food, can serve as a plot points.
  •       Perfect by Natasha Friend, teens with eating disorders.
  •       James Cross Giblin’s The Boy Who Saved Cleveland, a survival story all about corn.
  •       Joan Bauer’s Close to Famous and Sprinkles and Secrets by Lisa Schroeder both center on cupcakes. 

Characterization: Consider the immortal words of J. Wellington Wimpy “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” Thoughts, attitudes, and opinions about food add flesh to our character’s bones.
  • In Ruby Lu, Brave and True by Lenore Look, this description of the new girl says it all: “When the ice-cream truck came down the street, Christina was always the first in line.”
  • Tracing the Stars by Erin Moulton, stars Indie Lee Chicory who loves chowder almost as much as she does her golden cola drinking lobster.
  • The Chocolate Touch, John Midas is a nice boy with “one bad fault: he was a pig about candy.”

Mealtimes:  Back-story and motivation are revealed, stories unravel, and secrets are shared.
  • Who’s coming to dinner? Meals are an excuse to bring all manner of characters together.
  • What’s for dinner? Mealtime fare reveals economic situations and informs readers about other times, places & cultures.
  • Where’s dinner? The place and table establish setting

Descriptions: Food is often used to describe color, especially skin color: white as cream, honey golden, mocha, Joe’s face “pale as an onion” (How to Eat Fried Worms, Thomas Rockwell). At best, food references create multi-sensory descriptions.

  • Sid Fleischman describes the prince’s face as “lobster-red from running” in The Whipping Boy. Readers unfamiliar with lobsters will visualize a reddish face and read on. Those familiar with lobsters will round out the image by picturing the prince’s face as hard and crusty like a lobster shell, and a whiff of sea salt.
  • Richard Best calls a classmate’s legs “Slim Jim pretzels” (The Candy Corn Contest by Patricia Reilly Giff) –long, thin, pretzel salt, bumpy, too.
  • Ruby Lu’s ink “as lumpy as tempura batter” (Ruby Lu, Brave and True by Lenore Look)—Look is a master of food imagery. Here’s more:
  • “At night the rain was a lullaby of a billion grains of rice falling on the roof”
  • Ruby likens her father’s fast knitting to “a starving man’s chopsticks at a feast
  • Her brother was “wrapped up like a burrito”

Food names serve double duty as they conjure a multi-sensory image while giving name to a person, place or thing:

  • The island of “Tangerina” and port of “Cranberry” (My Father’s Dragon, Ruth Stiles Gannett)
  • Dogs “Fudge-Fudge” and “Marshmallow” (The New Animal by Emily Jenkins)

One of Kelly's inventive Halloween costumes...

Emotion: To quote Pillsbury:  “Nothing says loving like something from the oven.”

  • When disappointed in her brother, Ruby “felt all her love for him drying up like spilled soda on a hot sidewalk.”
  • When Ruby’s mad she feels “hotter than microwave popcorn.”
  • Lowji, Candace Fleming’s Indian character in Lowji Discovers America gets mad, too, he turns “hot, hotter than Bape’s curry sauce.”

Final Words on Food:

If it speaks; it eats. Therefore, as plot, character, description, or emotion, there’s room for food in every story. Bon appetite!

Warning: Food references are like wine and chocolate: as much as we’d like to think otherwise, for best results they should be used in moderation.