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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Query Mutations

After I finished my adult suspense novel in the winter of 2010 I began the next step in the writing process: drafting the perfect query letter to snag an agent.  I soon learned what I really needed were three different things.  First I needed a good log line, next I needed a descriptive paragraph for my query letter, and last I needed an oral pitch for that opportune time when I might find myself trapped in an elevator with a potential agent.
I’ll begin with the log line.  On the advice of my critique group I purchased, Save the Cat! The Last Book On Screenwiting That You’ll Ever Need.   SCREENWRITING, you ask?  Precisely my response.   But here’s the thing.  Say you’re at a party and someone asks, “what’s your novel about?”  We’ve all heard that, and by now we all know people aren’t going to wait around for a long, convoluted description.  That’s when you snap out that log line.  Oh, and by the way, try to make it ironic.  Easy.  Right?
Here’s an example of a famous log line.  A cop goes to L.A. to visit his estranged wife and her office building is taken over by terrorists. – Die Hard
I’ve worked on mine for months and I’m still not completely happy with it.  A woman leaves her controlling husband only to hook up with a potential serial killer. – Behind Blue Eyes
Next I decided to peruse the Writers Market 2010, where I learned the do’s and don’ts of queries letters.  They even provide samples.  Again, I thought, this can’t be that hard!  Months and many mutations later I had:
Suspense, drama, girlfriends and dangerous romance – tough, resilient, and armed with her loyal Rottweiler; Isabel is determined to preserve her newfound freedom from her controlling husband.  Moving back to her hometown, she settles into her family’s secluded hunting cabin where she is besieged by old friends, potential suitors, and menacing notes.  When her brother’s friend, Luke, tries to deepen their relationship Isabel is drawn, instead, to Jackson, an exonerated murderer. Trying to start over amidst the comforts of familiar surroundings, Isabel finds that no one is quite who they used to be, and worse, one of them might be a serial killer.
It was OK, but I still wasn’t satisfied.  Then I attended a “pitch session” at Joseph-Beth book store on November 6.  It was presented by Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry as they publicized their new book, The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published.  On the panel was Nancy Martin, a local author.  Each writer had a minute to give their pitch.  I had decided that my query paragraph would suffice for a vocal pitch and that I’d only pitch if absolutely necessary.  After all, I’m a writer for a reason.  I LIKE dwelling behind the scenes.  Public speaking has always freaked me out.  After each writer’s pitch the panel gave them advice on how to improve their pitch.  There weren’t many people so after hearing 3 or 4 pitches I nerved myself up to do mine.  When I finished, Nancy had this advice for me; plot, voice, opening scene and the hook.
This was pretty basic, and a bit opposite to what I had produced.  After much brain storming, tweaking, and several trips to the kitchen for croissants slathered with nutella I had:
After the second body is discovered in the rural town of Cranfield, Arkansas, citizens fear a serial killer has once again come to hunt them. As a young man Raymond Fisher was motivate towards law-enforcement because of unsolved kidnappings and a murder in the 1970’s.  Today, a respected and many-times reelected sheriff, Raymond scrabbles to calm hysteria and solve these new murders in his town. Isabel, has newly returned to her hometown and is living in seclusion in a hunting cabin with her Rottweiler, Brutus.  But threatening phone calls from her controlling husband are disrupting her new life.  As a distraction she joins her old friend, Raymond and the ruggedly handsome Jackson, to flush out the killer.  But she is haunted with a terrifying theory that she dares not share with her friends.  Has her mentally abusive husband evolved to physical abuse?  Is he the murderer they are seeking?

Now I had a plot with too many characters before I ever mentioned my protagonist, Isabel.  After stressing I emailed my efforts to my critique group and my friend, Jenny came up with:
Isabel flees a mentally abusive husband and returns to her Arkansas hometown, a place still haunted by the memories of a serial killer from 20 years ago. Her family's secluded cabin was supposed to provide a safe haven, but her presence seems to have reignited the killing spree.  Is her new lover Jackson, once accused then exonerated of the murders, the guilty party?  Or has her rage-filled husband finally resorted to physical violence to bring her home?
Immediately I knew she’d got it right.  My Rottweiler, Brutus thought so too when I read it aloud to him as he lay in his usual position on my study’s couch.


I like Jenny’s version so much I plan on using it in query letters, and vocal pitches -- although I sincerely hope an oral pitch will not crop up in my near future.  The moral of the story is (bear with me here, I’m a writer and I like stories with morals!) don’t stress when your first, second, third, or even fourth attempt isn’t there yet.  Keep going, and, after investing in research, attending workshops, conferences, and finally asking good friends for help, you’ll get there.  Never, ever give up!
Carol Herder

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Claude Pepper, Leisure City and the Burpless Cucumber

Last week I spent four delightful days at the Miami Book Fair International.   As one of over 350 authors invited to attend and present at the Fair, I was a very small fish in a very big pond.  Some of my fellow fish included Kate DiCamillo, Carlos Fuentes, Nora Ephron, President George W. Bush, Toni DiTerlizzi, Robert Forbes, John Waters, Pat Conroy and Dave Barry, to name just a few.  Talk about diversity!  Going strong in its 27th year, the Book Fair celebrated Mexico on the occasion of the bicentennial of its independence as well as providing the usual fabulous array of speakers, workshops, school visits, storytelling, children’s activities, classes, exhibits, street fairs, food and entertainment.  I am certain that I have left out something, but suffice it to say that in a weeklong event that comes with a 28 page program, there is something for everyone who loves books and the people who write them.  As a children’s author of two zany poetry collections and a picture book story told backwards*, I was happy to be among them. My part in the program involved two days and four schools’ worth of school visits as well as a presentation at the Miami Dade College Wolfson  Campus to a group of school children who were bused in for the occasion. In addition, due to the generous support of Publix Super Markets Charities, the first 50 children to each of the children’s authors’ presentations that Friday received a free copy of the author’s book.  All told, I read my latest book The Bicklebys’ Birdbath 12 times and got a different reaction each time.  Particularly impressive to me was the fact that after the reading in which the first 50 children received free books, I had the opportunity to autograph each child’s book. About half of the children wanted their books autographed for someone other than themselves. 
                So what does all of this have to do with Claude, a Florida city with a funny name, and the polite cucumber?   One of the most frequently asked questions I get from schoolchildren is, “Where do the ideas for your books come from?” In the case of Bicklebys’ I honestly cannot remember except that the birdbath came first and the title came second because I am a lover of alliteration.  The story was rewritten so many times that I forget exactly what my original tale was.  However, I carry a notebook around with me at all times because you never know when that cartoon light bulb is going to go off over your head.  My light bulb went off three times while I was out and about in southern Florida.  Being a person who can’t get enough of funny sounding words, I was first intrigued passing by a sign for Leisure City while on my way to Pine Villa Elementary School.  Leisure City? There must be a story there.  Claude Pepper’s statue is very near to a statue of Christopher Columbus along the waterfront in downtown Miami and I just loved his name.  And the burpless cucumber?  I met him under a sign at the Knaus Berry Farm on my way to Homestead, Florida.  A limerick about him began percolating all the way to my final fair school visit. 
                So whatever you do, don’t forget your notebook!  A burpless cucumber is a terrible thing to waste.

Andrea Perry is the author of Here’s What You Do When You Can’t Find Your Shoe, The Snack Smasher, and The Bicklebys’ Birdbath.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Sagging Middle

by Cynthia Light Brown

This picture was done by Seth Patrick, who also designed our logo.
Seth's a great artist and illustrator. Check out his website at

I had a birthday recently. It was one of those big ones with a zero at the end that no one will let you quietly ignore, and it was a “middle” birthday. A big fat 50 middle. I’m doing that mid-life thingy where you contemplate the sagginess of your life and try to resist the urge to do anything drastic, like sky-diving or starting a pig farm.

I’m also the mother of three children, which means I have a middle that is most definitely sagging. If you look at my profile picture, or my skinny-skinny chicken legs, you’d think there’s no way I have a sagging middle. But there it is. And if I put on 5 pounds tomorrow eating too much mashed potatoes, 4.999 pounds of it will go to my saggy-baggy middle.

I’m also working on a novel, and I’m – you guessed it – in the middle. Desperately trying to keep it from sagging. The opening chapters were fun to write (and re-write and re-write) and I’m oh-so-excited about the climax. But that darn middle, where I have to somehow push readers from point A to point B.

Therein lies the crux of the matter – all too often we writers think of the middle as simply getting from point A to point B, to just get it over with. But that’s sort of like thinking that when you climb a mountain, all you’re trying to do is get to the top. If all you’re trying to do is get to point B, you’re missing the Point. The middle has a purpose; it’s where the main events happen, where we truly get to know the characters and their motivations and relationships and secrets, and where the central questions of the novel are explored and complicated.

So, what to do about a sagging middle? Here’s a checklist that I keep in the back of my mind, and then use after the whole gloppy mess is drafted. And after it’s revised. And after it’s revised again, and again, and again…until it isn’t gloppy.

1. Raise the stakes. Especially the emotional stakes. You raise the stakes by throwing your main character into worse and worse situations. You raise the emotional stakes by making a greater and greater disconnect between what the MC wants, and all the things you’re throwing at him/her that keep the MC from getting what he/she wants. If it really matters to the MC, it will really matter to your readers.
2. Have a memorable plot structure. By this, I mean that the events that drive the story forward are distinct and stand out to the reader. Distinctness can come from a unique setting, or something drastic or hilarious that happens. Have you ever read a book that is beautifully written and perhaps even has well developed characters, but you just can’t remember what happens in most of the book? Not good. If in doubt, push the edges, make a zany supporting character even zanier, make a dead body show up stuffed into one of the giant washing machines at the laundromat. Make your reader gasp. If they gasp, they will remember. Alternatively, making them pee in their pants from laughing will work too.
3. Reveal secrets. Don’t save all your twists until the end. This advice is not just for murder mysteries. It’s for all mysteries, which means it’s for all stories, because all stories at their heart are mysteries.
4. Have multiple paths, but no dead ends. You don’t want a simple, straight plot to get to the end. Those twisting paths that run alongside the main path – called subplots – add intrigue and depth. They often involve relationships. But don’t let yourself wander off onto a dead end – a path that doesn’t advance the plot. To do this, you want most of your scenes doing double or triple duty. For example, a relationship takes a twist as a result of something external happening in the story.
5. Do NOT NOT NOT do a long backstory dump. You may want to give us, the readers, a long explanation of things that happened before the novel started, but we don’t want to read it. At least not all at once. It’s tempting after an action-packed beginning to settle into long exposition. Don’t do it.
6. Have mini-arcs in your chapters. Each of your chapters should have its own arc, where tension builds through the chapter towards a climax. All of these arcs within chapters have to contribute towards the main story arc. After a chapter climax, give readers a VERY short breather. Like climbing a mountain, if you take very short stops to catch your breath, you can go even higher. But if you stop for a nap, forget it. Your reader will not tolerate a nap.
7. Cut out the fat. Be ruthless about trimming out excess words, sentences, scenes. Trimming fat can also help on the other kind of sagging middle too.
8. Raise the stakes. Hmm, I think I already said that. Must be repeating myself here in my middle years (which you should not do in your novel middle). But it bears repeating: RAISE THE STAKES!

I’m going to go slump down into our giant beanbag chair, eat some sag-inducing chocolate, and dream about pigs jumping out of airplanes with little parachutes attached (no worries, no pigs will be harmed in my dream). I’m quite content with much of the sagginess in my life. Just not in my novels.

Need Something to entertain the kids on Thanksgiving? Here’s some very saggy, very fun stuff to make with them. I love oobleck. This works best if you’re going to someone else’s house for Thanksgiving, and you’re doing it with someone else’s kids. It’s from my book Amazing Kitchen Chemistry Projects You Can Build Yourself.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Symbiosis of Inspiration

As I drove down our winding country road this weekend, I happened to look over at one of my favorite scenes.  Our farmer neighbor, Sam, plants his corn in alternating arcs of corn and grass that follow the concave sweep of the hillside. Filling in the acres next to the field is a stand of hardwoods, carefully managed by another neighbor. It takes my breath away at various times of the year; the color, the curve, a seemingly perfect symbiosis of nature and man’s attendant touch.  As I drove past and glanced at the swaths of cornstalk remnants, I saw the hand of nature once again working in harmony with man’s pursuit. A flock of Canada geese, two hundred, maybe more, had stopped for a respite and a meal. They would clean the field of fallen kernels before continuing their flight south. On another day, when my thoughts were on doing, rather than creating, I might have seen the geese, smiled and looked at the clock on my dash. Instead, I stopped the car, got out, and sat in the field to watch, knowing that the scene will be repeated in my writing, somewhere, sometime ( maybe this is it). As I listened to the soft honks warning of my presence among them, it occurred to me how often I am inspired to write by what I see, but, also, how I am inspired to see because I write. And how, when the cycle engages itself, it is incredibly satisfying .

The idea for a new novel bloomed suddenly in my mind last week. I’m excited and grateful. It has awakened me. For months I’ve been laboring over, and worrying about, a new ending for an old novel. When I finally completed it, the relief was tremendous. I can now move on. Not only is it exciting contemplating the journey of a new story, it’s also exciting because I know that I will be seeing, hearing, feeling more intently. The whole creative process will awaken me, connect me to my world, and make me more cognizant.

Today is rainy grey, the perfect inspiration for a new first paragraph. I’m going for a walk in the woods, but not before I light the logs in the fireplace and slip a tray of slivered acorn squash into the oven. When I return, I’ll settle in front of the fire with my computer and a plate of the salty-sweet squash, and begin to create the world of a young boy named Ansel . Hopefully, I will bring to life a world as lush with color, aroma, and texture as my own world is now.  
Roasted  Slivered Acorn Squash

Use any type of squash. My favorite is acorn, however butternut also works well.
Wash the squash well, as you will eat the skin. Cut the squash in half (this is the hardest part) and scoop out the seeds.  
Lay the cut side down against a cutting surface and slice into ¾ inch pieces.
Put slices in a large bowl and toss with olive oil. Then lay them side by side on a cookie sheet.
Sprinkle each piece with a little sea salt, a little brown sugar, and, if you like, a green herb such as thyme or rosemary (my favorite).
Roast at 425 for 30 to 40 minutes, until they look slightly caramelized. Slip off tray with a spatula and eat. Yum.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Will E-readers Destroy the Novel?

"Amazon's going to ruin the Novel," Dear Boy said yesterday.

I looked up from my laptop, where I had begun to suspect I was ruining my own novel, without any help from Amazon. "How?"
"The Kindle offers free samples," DB said. "So the opening will make or break the sale. This will totally warp the way authors open their novels." 
"But that's how I shop for novels already. Especially with authors I haven't read before. I read the first page. Sometimes only the first paragraph."
Dear Boy looked shocked. As if I'd confessed a new secret vice. (He already knows about my old secret vice: compulsive revising.)
"Well, how do you shop?" I challenged him.
"I guess I read the first page. But after that I riffle through the book."
"You riffle."
"I riffle. I think most people riffle."
"Agents and publishers don't riffle!" I crowed. "At one of the SCBWI conferences, an agent told us that if page 1 doesn't grab her, she doesn't read page 2. She can't afford the time. She always has something like 3,000 submissions in her email in-box."
"They just read the opening?"
"Yep. The agent recommended that kidlit authors put an active scene—in dialogue—on the first page of every novel. So books are already being sold or not sold, based on first pages."
"The Novel of Tomorrow: a smashing opening, followed by a long downhill slide," DB muttered darkly. "Soon people will realize that the only part worth reading is the free sample. We'll only read openings. We won't read anything we have to pay for." And he sat down and opened his Kindle.
"What are you reading now?" I asked.
"How does that open?"
"Doesn't matter. The classics are free on Amazon." 

What think you? Do Novels open differently nowadays? Must they? Is there a book you love whose opening would fail today? What opening recently sold you on a book? And how many of you really, truly riffle? 

Here are three openings (by authors I had not previously read) that recently made me buy the whole novel. (Guess the publication dates. Answers will appear in my next post.) "It wasn't there. Then it was.  Later, that was how Angela DuPre would describe the airplane—over and over, to one investigator after another—until she was told never to speak of it again."
"I was not the first girl she saw, nor the second, and as to why she chose me, I know that now: it was because she did not like me."
"When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it's never good news."

And here are three oldies-but-goodies that had me at hello:
"Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents."
"The bear had been their undoing, though at the time they had all laughed."
And my all-time favorite: "'Where's Papa going with that ax?'"

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Finding Your Voice

L-R - Deborah Vetter, Cicada and Cricket; Rachel Abrams,
HarperCollins Children’s Books; Quinlan Lee, Agent, Adams Literary

Last weekend I attended Western Pennsylvania’s SCBWI conference held in Pittsburgh. I sat in on informative sessions with Deborah Vetter, Rachel Abrams and Quinlan Lee. In Quinlan Lee's session, she pointed out that at almost every conference, an attendee asks, “What are you looking for in a manuscript?” Her reply: “Award Winning Books and Bestsellers.” But joking aside, Lee gave the audience the best ingredients for a great book. One of the main ingredients was a strong, unique voice.

As a newbie writer, I repeatedly heard editors or agents say, "I'll know a good voice when I hear it, or send me a book with a good voice." I never appreciated or clearly understood that reply. Now, as an avid YA reader and writer, a strong, clear distinctive voice smacks me over the head with every new novel I read. And to the contrary, an indistinctive, stereotyped personality will force me to stop reading after a few chapters. I finally “get” why editors and agents say they can tell within the first few pages of a manuscript if they want to read more.

As I peruse my bookshelf, certain books jump out as ones that have pulled me in because of the main character’s voice. I could list loads of examples, but I’ll pick two to illustrate voice.

I’m sure most of you have read Suzanne Collins trilogy (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay). In these books, the main character, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen’s strong voice draws the reader in from the first page to the last. The contrast between her strong exterior to her vulnerable interior makes her both a likeable and believable character, who the reader wants to root for until the end. Her determination and wit shows through in both her dialogue and her thoughts.

In Jeannine Garsee’s Before, After, and Somebody in between, 14-year-old Martha Kowalski has had a rough life facing the day to day struggles with her addict mom. Her tough girl act cannot mask her huge heart and passion for music.

A character’s voice becomes distinguishable through inner thoughts and dialogue. When I first started writing novels, all of my characters sounded the same. If the taglines were hidden, the reader wouldn’t have been able to tell which character spoke any particular line. Many of my characters were boring and stereotypical. Referencing Dave Amaditz's November 15th post on Katherine Paterson, it wasn’t until I consistently read and analyzed young adult literature that I understood the importance of voice. I finally began writing from my character’s point of view rather than mine as the narrator. My characters became more real and believable.

In a novel with a clear, strong voice, the reader should be able to identify who is speaking without seeing the tagline. As a test, I opened each of the above books at around the halfway point and scanned down the page for the main character’s thoughts or dialogue.

In Mockingjay, Katniss faces a man from another district who wants to kill her. She has to give him a valid reason not to end her life, but she can’t. “We blew up your mine. You burned my district to the ground. We’ve got every reason to kill each other. So do it. Make the Capitol happy. I’m done killing their slaves for them.” The fire and passion comes through Katniss’ dialogue. The reader is clear Katniss is speaking without seeing her tagline.

In Jeannine Garsee’s Before, After, and Somebody in between, Martha is taken to jail for defending herself against the school bully. During Martha’s processing, she examines the contents of her belongings. One blue flannel shirt with a missing button, one red T-shirt, bleach stains duly noted, one pair of blue jeans with a ripped knee, one pair of stinky socks, one pair of beat-up nylon Reeboks, a pair of pink flowered underpants minus half the elastic, one plain white bra with a safety pin in the strap. No money, jewelry, keys, trinkets, or anything else that speaks of a real life. Even if you haven’t read this novel, you get a clear sense of the character and how poorly she rates her life. Her hardship and struggles speak to the reader through her hardened voice.

The more you read, the more you’ll be able to identify a strong voice. As you get to know your characters and understand their strengths and faults, you’ll write more distinguishable characters with unique voices. And the next time you’re at a conference and the editor or agent asks for submissions with a strong voice, you’ll smile and nod because you will also understand a good voice when you read it or write it.

To learn more about the authors mentioned above, please visit:

Monday, November 15, 2010

Read. Read. Read.

I had a wonderful opportunity not long ago to hear a presentation by Katherine Paterson, author of Newberry award winners such as Bridge to Terabithia and The Great Gilly Hopkins. On top of the fact I got to meet one of my favorite authors, her speech was inspiring to me on so many levels.
Without going into details, because you need to go and listen to her speak for yourself, I'll tell you the most important message I walked away with that day.
Read. Read. Read.
It couldn't have been any clearer. Reading was the most important reason for her successes. It gave me hope on the most basic level that I too, can one day become a successful novelist.
When I first started to write creatively my only goal was to... Write. Write. Write. And then... Rewrite. Rewrite. Rewrite. While it's obvious nothing will ever be published without these two very important parts of the writing process, I neglected another. I neglected reading. It was a hard-learned lesson, because my writing wasn't taken seriously until I focused more on reading, especially reading critically those authors who are already successful in the genre I write.

In my favorite novel by Katherine Paterson, The Master Puppeteer, the parallel between reading a book for enjoyment and reading a book critically can be best summed up by the main character, Jiro. Jiro is the puppeteer's assistant. Not long after going to live in the theater, the Hanaza, and training under the master puppeteer, Jiro has a revelation about what it takes to perfect the craft of a puppeteer. A quote found approximately midway through the book reads like this. "The first time he had stood and watched this scene, he had thought it magnificent, but as a child judges something he cannot understand. Now he knew; now his blood raced to his arm, and he could feel his own fingers and wrists moving with those of the puppeteers."
I kind of felt this way the first time I read The Master Puppeteer. It was fantastic. A great read. A book I didn't want to put down. But by the time I read the novel the second, third and fourth times, I truly came to appreciate the story Katherine Paterson had crafted on a much deeper level. I was able to see more clearly why Katherine Paterson is a master storyteller.
She has developed great characters. She has seamless transitions. Her pacing is perfect. She uses layering and suspense. And she has developed a plot that reads like reality.
So why wouldn't I want to read more? Why wouldn't I want to learn from someone that has already done what I am attempting to do and done it so successfully?
These days, I follow Katherine Paterson's advice. I read. I read as often as possible. I read for enjoyment as well as to learn the craft of writing. By doing that, I hope that maybe, just maybe , one day I might be able to put together a novel bordering something close to those written by Katherine Paterson.
To learn more about Katherine Paterson, please visit:


Happy reading,


Some of Dave's other favorite reads: any Katherine Paterson novel, Kit's Wilderness, Skelig, Clay, Trigger, Hatchet, Yellow Star, Feed, The Hunger Games, Holes, Maniac Magee

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Best Laid Plans

Back in high school, you wouldn’t have caught me dead at a high school football game on a Friday night. If an event didn’t involve art, theater or female songwriters, it didn't interest me. Who knew that several decades later you’d find me in the bleachers. Why?
            My daughter joined the marching band. 
            She's a member of the Guard, the team of girls who wave colorful flags in glorious, swirling precision to the music. Last month she asked if we could host one of the dinners held before the home games. 
As a YA writer, I was thrilled. Here was a golden opportunity to talk to 17 high-school girls about what novels they love to read. I had the whole thing planned – over a hearty meal I’d ask about their favorite books, talk about characters they loved, discuss beloved authors – and I'd write up the results for this blog.
            "No," my daughter said. "Bad idea." She tried to warn me, but I didn’t listen. The girls flew in, did their hair and makeup, gossiped about boys, chattered like, well, high schoolers, ate, grabbed their treat bags and flew back out the door to get to the school by Report Time. I'd have been too busy pouring drinks and setting out dishes to participate even if there was time and interest.
            Research plans, like life, don't always go the way you hope. 
            While I didn't get to talk to the entire team, four of the Guard Girls were visiting a few nights later and talked with me about their favorite books. When I asked them about some of my favorite YA novels like Looking for Alaska and Thirteen Reasons Why, they said they'd read them, but none of them ranked those books with their top picks, which surprised me. Other award-winners were mentioned. Here's their list:

The Harry Potter series (2 & 6 were special favorites), by J.K. Rowling
Princess Academy, by Shannon Hale
A Great & Terrible Beauty, by Libba Bray
Peter Pan, by J.M. Barrie and Scott Gustafson 
Angus, Thongs and Full- Frontal Snogging: Confessions of Georgia Nicolson, by Louise Rennison
Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie
Nancy Drew Series: Secret of Shadow Ranch & The Secret of the Old Clock, by Carolyn Keene

            Isn't it interesting that the older classics popped up? Not the 'results' that I was expecting – but that's why I make myself do research even if it's something I dread (like calling that scientist about water analysis equipment for the story I’m working on).
            What was expected was a good meal for the party. If you're going to feed teens who report for duty at 5:15 pm and won't be done until 11:00 pm, you want to serve food they'll eat instead of push around their plates. Ilene, another mom and a great cook, teamed up with me and made lots of the food. The girls loved the dinner.

Here's our menu and a recipe.
Spinach lasagna
Baked Squash (with egg, flour, sugar & cinnamon)
Raw broccoli salad with cashews, sunflower seeds & cran-raisins (this was wonderful, too bad I forgot to pull it out of the refrigerator and serve it!)
Green salad with cherry tomatoes & feta cheese
Cornflake Chicken
Brownies & crisped rice treats

Recipe for Cornflake Chicken
(The coating keeps the chicken incredibly moist)

  • 2 cups cornflakes, pulverized in a food processor or crushed in a sealable plastic bag, but not crushed to the consistency of flour. A mix of small chunks and fine crumbs make a crunchier coating.
  • ½ cups grated Parmesan cheese (if I use Kraft's, I skip the salt)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon pepper if you want
  • 3-4 lbs of chicken – I use boneless breasts cut in half or thirds to make smaller pieces. Reminds the kids of XL chicken nuggets.
  • 2-3 eggs
Oven: preheat to 350 degrees F.
  • Line a couple 13x9 baking pans with foil and spray with cooking spray (I like canola oil).
  • In one shallow bowl, beat the eggs with a fork. Mix the cornflake crumbs, parmesan cheese and spices in baggie, then pour some of this mixture into a second shallow bowl.
  • Dip the chicken pieces in the egg, then roll/coat all sides in the cornflake mix (refill bowl as needed). Place in the prepared baking pan. Don't let the pieces touch. When finished, I like to lightly spray the chicken with some more cooking spray, but that's optional.
  • Bake for 1 hour, without turning. Chicken will be crispy, golden and delicious.
If you're not cooking for a crowd, cut down the recipe. Use drumsticks or other bone-in chicken pieces if you prefer, just pierce the skin and make sure the juices run clear to test for doneness. If you have leftover cornflake crumbs, seal up the bag and keep it in the refrigerator for the next time.       

Hope your friends/family/guests enjoy!
Cheers, Jenny

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Mucking About with Fairy Tales and Tall Tales: How to Twist Them and Make Them Your Own

Hansel and Gretel by Arthur Rackham, 1909

This weekend, I'm speaking at the Western Pennsylvania SCBWI conference on "Mining the Folklode." In case you can't make it to the conference, here's a quick overview of the tips I'll be sharing to help you take well known tales and give the reshaping that makes them interesting for modern audiences.

  So, you think you’d like to write a tale or two!

Let’s start with the basic good old-fashioned fairy tale.

You know where to begin--


Once upon a time,

But where do you want to go next? Far away? Or far far away? You decide.


Once you have your kingdom in mind, let’s give someone or a bunch of someones there a problem. A serious problem.

      A dragon is good.
      An ogre scary.
      A band of outlaws might make for tension.
      So would an invading army.
      And you can always fall back on the very annoyed and ready to do harm step-mom
Illustration by Margaret Evans Price for Cinderella  in Bates, Once Upon a Time: A Book of Old-Time Fairy Tales, edited by Katharine Lee. Chicago: Rand McNally & Company, 1921.

      How is the problem going to be solved?
      Remember in picture books there is a series of three.
      If they throw water on the dragon, it turns to steam.
      If they build a trap for the ogre, he eats it.
      If she/he tries to fool the vexed step-mom, that tricky step-mom foils the fooling.

      If you have a hero, now’s the time for them to start to really work hard. This is a fairy tale so magic is fair! One, two, three. YAY!

      And everyone is happy ever after.

Now, apply this to a tall tale, but let’s make some changes.

Just last week…

In Pimplepopp, Pennsylvania

In a garbage dump, a blob began to grow, and grow, and GROW

And the only one who noticed was a little boy who rode his bike by the garbage dump as he delivered papers.
      So, what’s going to happen? One, two, three.

And since this is a tall tale, give your kid some super powers.

Remember, a tall tale might sorta could be true, well, here and there. And then it’s stretched and stretched until it’s fun!

Now, what if you have a favorite fairy tale and you want to tinker with it? What do you do?

Use our template.

Do you want to change the WHEN?    

What if Sleeping Beauty took place in 2525?

Change the WHERE.

What if Jack and the Beanstalk took place on Jupiter?

Change the WHAT

What if in Cinderella the Prince was a schmuck and the step-mom was trying to keep Cinderella away from him?

Change the HOW

What if Jack decided to negotiate a peace treaty with the giant instead of killing him? What if Jack felt remorse for stealing the giant’s favorite things?

In fact, what if Jack lived in New York City and his mother told him to go out and sell her cow costume because they needed the money to buy milk. What if a guy on his way to a party needed a costume and wants the cow suit. What if he gives Jack a magic key that makes any elevator open immediately if the key touched the door? What if Jack decides to try the key out on the new office building and he finds himself on the 313th floor and . . . .

Well, you get the idea.

Have fun! If you are laughing as you write, the reader will be laughing as they read.

Monday, November 8, 2010

NanoWriMo, Butt-in-Chair and More: Tools to Get You to Just Finish Your Novel

We're kicking off this blog with a month of posts about novels. I have to confess I had my doubts about being the debut poster on this topic, because although I love novels and although I've even had three several-hundred page nonfiction books published (as well as assorted picture books), I've never actually managed to finish any of the half dozen novels I've started.

For anyone out there who's like me, I'm here to tell you about some of the tools/tricks I'm using right now to help me finish at least one of them. Though maybe you should take them with a grain of salt until I actually get a first draft completed...

  • NaNoWriMo November, in case you've been avoiding all writing-related sites recently, is National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWriMo is an unbelievably cool idea/organization: you write a 50,000 word novel. In a month. Yes, 30 days. From scratch. For those of you who also hated math in school, this works out to 1,667 words a day, which may not sound bad, but is in fact a lot of words if you are really good at distracting yourself with trips to the refrigerator, trips to the bathroom, trips to the coffeemaker, more trips to the bathroom, and oh, heck, even trips to the laundry room. Fortunately, if you go to the nanowrimo site and sign up, you get tons of emails inspiring, encouraging, nagging, scolding you, etc. until you get your daily quota done (and post it on their counter thing). 
    • Not much of a joiner, you say? November's a terrible month for you? Want to keep working on something you already started? No worries. You can: a) do nanowrimo unofficially (like I'm doing with my son - we nag each other with no need for gobs of emails); or b) you can do a mini version (set your own target word count or write a picture book or something); or c) you can join one of the Plan B groups, like the janowrimo people, who go through a similar process in different months, not even just January; or d) cheat, and pretend you just started, which will make those first few days very easy, but the last ones super tough. 
  • BIC HOK TAM This is a mnemonic I first heard about at a writing conference years ago - and it remains the most effective tool I know for successful writing. It stands for: Butt-In-Chair; Hands-On-Keyboard; Typing-Away-Madly. And in the end, it's the only thing that works. To remind myself to settle in and work, I decorated my writing chair (shown above) with buttons, making it a button chair. Get it? Hilarious I know. (I was nice and spared you a view of my butt in the button chair.) Here's a close up:
    • It is about the easiest craft ever. Find some spare buttons or cut them off the shirt of your worst enemy (preferably when he isn't wearing it). Grab a hot glue gun. Apply dots of glue to the chair and stick the buttons on (dot, stick; dot, stick - the hot glue sets up quickly). Don't worry about being all arty about it - just get it done. That will put you in the right frame of mind.
  •  Yoga I'm not much of a New Age-y person, but I've got to say yoga is great for stressed out writers. It teaches you to focus, helps you work out the kinks from sitting in your button chair too long, and reduces the stress you feel from trying to beat the nanowrimo deadline. If you're prone to carpal tunnel or other desk jockey ailments, I strongly recommend the great exercises to prevent repetitive stress injury you can find at My Daily Yoga.
  • A Tree House
Okay, not strictly necessary. But a place where you can get away from your every day responsibilities and people looking over your shoulder is a big help. A couple years ago, I took over my kids' old treehouse playhouse, painted it, added curtains and some nice furnishings from my neighbors' trash (yep - even the Oriental rug, which is in better shape than some of the rugs in my house, came from the trash), and got the electrician to run wiring to it when he was here fixing some other stuff, and now I have the perfect writing get away, when the weather cooperates. Which it magically is this week!
Of course, when all else fails, there's always the inspiration/reward of chocolate. Preferably Linder's Dark Chocolate with a Touch of Sea Salt...
How about you? Anyone else have great ideas for a kick in the button chair?

Welcome! (from Carol Baicker-McKee)


Pull up a chair and join us, a motley crew of writers living along Route 19 South in Pittsburgh. We're still just feeling our way around, but we're planning to  post 3 times a week on topics related to the writing life, the publishing world, book people, and of course enjoying the written word (and the illustrated one!). Also, we will talk about food, since we all like to eat while we write and read.

We're planning to pick a theme to blog about each month, but although we'll have that common thread, each post will be the work of just one of us - subject to that individual's quirks, specific knowledge and opinions, which the rest of us may or may not share.

November's theme: NOVELS.

We hope you'll join us to offer your insights and share knowledge, ask questions, tell us when we're being morons (okay, maybe not that), and generally have fun discussing this crazy life we share!

A little more about us:
  • Most of us write for the children's market - for every age group from infants to young adults, for every genre from nonfiction to fantasy. A couple of us also (or instead) write for the adult market, with a particular interest in mysteries. One of us is a poet (or meter maid, as we like to call her), and one is an illustrator who will yammer on and on and on about picture books. Um, that's me. You can tell me to shut up when it just gets to be too much.
  • Most of us are published writers, but regardless of level of publishing success, we all still feel like we are learning more every day. And we all have knowledge that we hope will prove useful to other writers at every stage from "thinking about it" to "book tour."
  • We are all avid readers. Maybe "rabid" is a better descriptor. We have strong likes and dislikes (and disagree at times, of course), so look for our reviews of exciting new discoveries or old favorites. We all haunt the excellent (and financially beleagured) local libraries and the dwindling number of bookstores...(another one - Joseph-Beth - just closed in Pittsburgh. Waah!)
  • We're active in the world of writers: we belong to a range of writers' organizations and we all attend conferences and author talks. And we like to visit the blogs of other writers, reviewers, and editors. We'll talk about controversies in publishing and bookselling, about big topics related to books like censorship and dealing with sensitive issues, as well as the ordinary questions and concerns of people who write or love books, from avoiding carpal tunnel syndrome to deciding whether conferences are worth the money to how to keep your family out of your hair while you work. And we'll include interviews of other writers, editors, agents, librarians and more.
  • Everyone of us is a decent cook. (I think.) Look from time to time for our favorite recipes - ideas for easy meals when you're crazy busy writing, recipes that go well with books we're reading, foods that unstick or inspire us or just sustain us in times of crisis.
  • A few of us are crafty. Judy, who writes gobs of craft books for kids, will post tutorials of fun things to do with your kids. And a few others of us will include tips or directions on book-related projects, from making a "butt-in-chair" (next post!) to knitting wrist warmers to keep your arms from freezing off while you sit at your keyboard on cold winter mornings.
  • Other things you'd like us to write about? Let us know.
Looking forward to getting to know all of you!