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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Exploding Poop!

By Cynthia Light Brown

It’s really true: for the past five years or so, pig manure on many farms has started producing a foam that explodes. One explosion in September, 2011 leveled a barn and killed 1,500 pigs. If your kid-radar isn’t out yet, it should be. It’s almost like a dream come true for kids—especially boys of a certain age…or rather, boys of any age (admittedly, it may not be so great for the pigs). You got poop, you got an explosion. What more could anyone want?

There’s even a mystery involved: what’s causing the foam? The explosions happen because the foam traps methane, a flammable gas (also known as natural gas). But no one really knows why the foam started forming. Scientists speculate that the foam may be produced by bacteria, or changes in feed, or maybe even cleaning materials, but they don’t know for sure. Who knows, maybe it will transform into a mutating, gelatinous goop-monster, ooze out of the manure pits and invade nearby cities. (The foam forms in manure pits; isn’t that a great phrase: manure pit.) So whether you write fiction or nonfiction, your kid-radar should be going bonkers by now.

Now, which do you think is a better title:



Exploding Poop!


Exploding Pig Poop!

The first is from the Earthweek article that I first saw this in, which is aimed at adults. But for my money, I like the pithy title, and I think kids would too. Smart, they are.

Takeaway lesson for writers:

1. Keep your eyes and ears open for great ideas.

2. It might feel like you’re wallowing in a manure pit of writing (heaven knows I am right now) but let things ferment, and when you least expect it, things will explode.

Of course, you don't know whether that explosion will be a good thing or a bad thing, but it will be a thing. And I will also admit that point #2 is stretching the analogy just a tad, but I REALLY wanted to share with you the exploding poop and felt like I should tie it to the writing process somehow. So please forgive me.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Relaxation v.s. Butt-in-Chair

by Fran McDowell 

     My dad is having problems with his cable. I’m having problems with a story line. While I stood behind his television, I noticed how the rainbow of individual colored plugs tapered neatly into one solid, black cable line. It occurred to me that I was looking at a replica of my story problem: too many colored plugs that haven’t yet come together. The myriad plugs have become a creative roadblock for me. It’s been this way for a while, now. 

     That same evening I crawled into bed, put on my headset, and touched the Podcast icon. What I heard was an interview with Jonah Lehrer for his new book, 'Imagine' That: Fostering Creativity In The Workplace. The words “imagine” and “creativity” in the title caught my attention. So I stayed awake (well, for the most part) and listened. The book, apparently, discusses the human mind in creative mode. It delves into “insight”: when it happens, how we can encourage it, and the role that relaxation plays in moments of revelation.
Jonah explained that insight “comes when we've given up, when we feel like we have nothing left to say. It comes in the shower. It comes in the bathtub. It comes under the apple tree. So it comes in the least expected moments.” And that these revelations, these moments of insight, play a big role in creativity. 

Since the book focuses primarily on the workplace, he used the 3M company as an example. What researchers have discovered is that people who are more relaxed, who exhibit lots of alpha wave activity (associated with states of relaxation), who are in good moods, tend to solve a lot more insight puzzles. In fact, 3M has become so convinced that relaxation is crucial to creative thinking that their employees get one hour a day to do “whatever”. It doesn’t have to be project related, work related. Napping during this hour is acceptable. So is playing ping-pong. They’ve discovered that chaining yourself to your computer and willing yourself to create, simply doesn’t work. 
At this point in the interview I became a little disheartened because I know that the butt-in-chair philosophy so many of us writers subscribe to is a necessity. The same goes for outlining, storyboarding and character drafting. The question then becomes: How creative can you really be when you force yourself to write? Verses, how productive are you if you don’t? 
There was another point Jonah touched on in the interview that intrigued me. He described a study where two groups of people are given a set of tasks to solve, such as coming up with creative ideas using bricks, or solving various insight puzzles. The one difference in the two groups? One group was told to pretend they were seven years old while doing the tasks. The group pretending to be seven years old, even though they only pretended for a couple of minutes, solved a lot more problems. Simply by letting go of their adult constraints, and remembering what it was like to be a child, enabled them to become more creative. 

I have a feeling that finding your creative mind comes back to a balance of butt-in-chair and letting go. For some of the folks at 3M, I’ll bet playing ping-pong is the perfect diversion. For me, nothing beats travel for finding that mental niche, (though most of the time I have to settle for poking around the ethnic food isle or watching Anthony Bourdain). But as to the second point, perhaps if I work on my problem novel while pretending to be a fifteen year old, instead of trying to think like a 15 year old, I’ll be able to meld my red, white and yellow plot lines into one effective story.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Miami in November

Ahhh, spring.  And one of the first things I am thinking about is fall - more specifically, the Miami Book Fair International.  For it is just about now that any of you, my fellow children's author friends out there, who might be interested in participating in this literary adventure should be calling to make arrangements.  I have participated in the Student Literary Encounters part of this event twice in the past five years and highly recommend it.  The Book Fair is a 28 year old extravaganza organized by Miami Dade College and is a week long celebration.  This year it runs from November 11-18, with the Street Fair November 16-18.  Beginning with "Evenings with..." featuring six nights of readings by authors from all around the world, to the "Festival of Authors," to the Children's Alley, and inclusive of many other activities, the Fair has an ongoing goal of bringing literary perspectives to the community.  This year's featured country is China.  Additionally,  an extra day of presentations has been added to the student program, which is the Student Literary Encounters I mentioned.  This involves children's authors presenting to various local school children in the greater Miami area.  The contact person is Lissette Mendez at 305-237-3298.  Hotel accommodations and transportation to the schools is provided by the Fair as well as a daily allowance for incidental expenses.  Further information and a glimpse into previous fairs can be found at www.miamibookfair.com/events. 

Friday, March 23, 2012

For Talking Out Loud

       Next Tuesday I have to go and talk to some elementary students about children's writing-type stuff.  I've been doing this for a number of years but I still don't like the public speaking part.  I love what I'm talking about and I love the kids but I don't love getting up in front of them.  It's a well-documented fact that speaking in front of people ranks as one of the average person's top fears and I am no exception.  There are courses and hints and relaxation techniques to ease us through that public speaking fear, but I still don't like it.   However, I know for a fact that there are a few things that definitely won't help.

Do not eat blueberries for breakfast.  Or parsley with your sandwich at lunch.  It is a good thing to have people smile up at you. It is not a good thing if the smiling is due to a giant blue blob stuck to your central incisor.
Make sure your fly is zipped.
Make sure your shoes match.
Make sure you put earrings in both ears. Make sure they also match.
Know the name of your school or group.  Do not call "Laurel Highland" "Laurel and Hardy." Nervousness will make you do that kind of thing.
Keep tissues handy in case you sneeze.
Maintain visual contact with your microphone cord at all times. The moment you don't know where it is, it is around your left ankle.
And finally, ladies, wear pants. Otherwise turning and bending down to retrieve a book or two off of a nearby table may result in your additionally grabbing the hem of your skirt and flashing the audience.  Your audience may enjoy the sharing of personal anecdotes, but the brand of control top panty hose that you wear is something they need not know.
So come Tuesday morning I may remind myself of the three tips that I recall from a public speaking course I took years and years ago - wear red, open with a joke, and imagine the audience in their underwear.  I just pray they don't get a flash of mine.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

More eHistoricals (The Molly Maguires, Ancient Egypt, and a 1920's Rodeo Gal)

SC Poe's Indie EBook Sampler, # 11

Call Me Kate: Meeting the Molly Maguires
By Molly Roe
Tribute Books, 2009

Poe thinks this is MG historical

First sentence: "S'ter, s'ter, I need to see Katie right away!"

1860 is a crisis year for the nation as well as Kate's family. A great Civil War is inevitable, and Father is horribly injured on the job. Kate is beset with troubles that may sound familiar to young readers—coal mine safety and the struggles of immigrants (the Irish, in this instance) to make a new life among resentful natives.

Roe's first-person narration speaks with just a light tang of the Irish and the era, sprinkling in words like bewildered, beckon, feckless, betokened. The steeply-hilled Pennsylvania mining town feels real. The flavor of Kate's Roman Catholic traditions thread naturally through the story; we don't get sermons or dogma, but the rituals, vestments, snips of Latin, and of course the Sisters are always around, as they would have been. The author falls prey to occasional telling-not-showing, especially when a historical point must be made, but this doesn't happen enough to spoil the momentum. The book has received recommendations from several eastern PA historical societies and museums.

Best of all, the sample leaves us hanging on the finest cliff-edge Poe has ever encountered in an ebook. (And—glory be!—for once, the book blurb doesn't spoil the surprise!) Poe must read on.

Rated S for Snapped Up.

The Eyes of Pharaoh: A Mystery in Ancient Egypt
By Chris Eboch
CreateSpace, 2011

Poe thinks this is MG historical mystery

First sentences: Seshta ran. Her feet pounded the hard-packed dirt street. She lengthened her stride and lifted her face to Ra, the Sun God.

Seshta's a 13-year-old Temple dance student who wants to be a star. She still pals around with brother-like Horus (a toy-maker's apprentice), but she's old enough to be developing a crush on another old friend, Reya. Reya's in the army now, and frustrates Seshta by treating her like a kid sister. He's also the source of hints that foreign troublemakers are hatching a plot in the city.

Like Call Me Kate, this story shows how today's kinds of conflicts play out in another time and place. Seshta must compete with sly fellow students who seem fresh out of Dance Moms; Horus's brilliant toy designs are claimed by his boss; every foreign face looks dangerous.

Eboch eschews the stilted language that often puts readers off historicals. The feel of time and place are expertly integrated, never telly. Eboch previously published another Egyptian historical, The Well of Sacrifice, with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and the Haunted series with Aladdin.

Rated S for Snapped Up.

Cowgirl Dreams
Follow the Dream
By Heidi M. Thomas
Treble Heart Books, 2009

Poe thinks these are YA historical biography

First sentence: The rangy reddish-brown steer stared into Nettie Brady's eyes for just a second.

Book One's opening could use some spit and polish. The rodeo men feel like types, not individuals. But the steer? Utterly real. Suddenly we're in a rare place for a female MC—in the rodeo ring.

The very short sample doesn't reveal the era, but the blurb sets the story in the 1920's, and tells us that the series recounts the true adventures of the author's grandmother, who defied the town gossips by pursuing rodeo fame.

Book Two opens thus:

Mrs. Jake Moser. Nettie drew a heart around "Jake" and doodled flowers in the margin of the first entry in her new journal. I'm married to my cowboy and we're going to rodeo together.

Rated If you love horse books, true life stories, or historicals with unique settings, then take a look at this series.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Show Don't Tell

Dave Amaditz
The other day I had a chance to meet and talk with a young, aspiring writer. It gave me the opportunity to revisit some of the essential elements of storytelling, one of which is to show versus tell. To help explain the concept I used the opening paragraphs of two Newberry award-winning novels. Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan and A Year Down Yonder, by Richard Peck. It amazes me still to see the ease and elegance with which the two of them were able to paint such a vivid picture of what was happening to the characters by showing us the scene.
For the novel Sarah, Plain and Tall, I wrote a short paragraph telling what was happening in the story, which we read together... (Warning! Told version below. I hope you can make it through because the real version follows.)
Sarah Plain and Tall - my told version
Caleb sat in the chair by a warm fire with his dogs, Lottie and Nick. He was a curious boy. He liked to ask questions. He asked them every single day. He asked them hundreds of times. He wanted to know if Mama used to sing. He wanted to know if Papa used to sing, too.
Below are Patricia MacLachlan's opening paragraphs:
"Did Mama sing every day?" asked Caleb. "Every-single-day?" He sat close to the fire, his chin in his hand. It was dusk, and the dogs lay beside him on the warm hearthstones.
"Every-single-day," I said for the second time this week. For the twentieth time this month. The hundredth time this year? And the past few years?
"And did Papa sing, too?"
"Yes. Papa sang, too. Don't get so close, Caleb. You'll heat up."
He pushed his chair back. It made a hollow scraping sound on the hearthstones, and the dogs stirred. Lottie, small and black, wagged her tale and lifted her head. Nick slept on.
Instantly, the student’s eyes brightened. "Did you get it? I asked.
She nodded, and I truly thought she did understand, but to bring home the point and the importance of the issue I reversed the process and read with her the opening paragraphs of Richard Peck's novel:
It was a September morning, hazy with late summer, and now with all the years between. Mother was seeing me off at Dearborn Station in Chicago. We'd come in a taxicab because of my trunk. But Mother would ride back home on the El. There wasn't much more than a nickel in her purse, and only a sandwich for the train in mine. My ticket had pretty well cleaned us out.
The trunk, a small one, had every stitch of clothes I had and two or three things of Mother's that fit me. "Try not to grow too fast," she murmured. "But anyway, skirts are shorter this year."
Then we couldn't look at each other. I was fifteen, and I'd been growing like a weed. My shoes from Easter gripped my feet.
A billboard across from the station read:
"What do we know about the characters?" I asked her. "What did Richard Peck show us in this scene without telling us?"
"They are poor," she said. "The character is a girl. She's going to miss her mother."
"And where and when is the story set?" I asked.
"Chicago. After the Great Depression."
Yes. Yes. Yes. I think she got the concept. No. I'm quite sure she got it.
(So we talked more. About how we learn so much about the characters without being told.
In our first example, we learned that the narrator obviously has a lot of patience. Caleb is obviously a boy with an insatiable curiosity, but also one who was cooperative and willing to listen since he so quickly and easily listened when asked to move away from the fire.
In the second example we learned that the characters do not seem to be bothered at all by the fact that they do not have a lot of money or a lot of worldly goods, but instead seem to be well-adjusted. We learn of the close relationship between mother and daughter.
The scenes were set. The examples are there to learn from.) Now, like all of us, her challenge is to put the concept into practice.
Keep writing everyone. Remember. (Don't forget the basics.)
Show, don't tell.
I've included a few links below to sites that have some interesting viewpoints on show versus tell. Check them out when you get a chance.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

St. Patrick's Day Surprise

by Marcy Collier

Happy St. Patrick's Day!!! 

I'm half Irish and St. Patrick's day is one of my favorite holidays. As a college student, I actually looked forward to drinking the green beer and celebrating with friends. This morning, I look forward to drinking a cold glass of green milk and helping my kids discover all the mischievous tricks the leprechaun has played on us while we were asleep. They've been up since 6:30 a.m. and still haven't discovered all of his pranks.
Some of you may have no idea what I'm talking about so I'll explain with a few pictures.

Green Milk (thankfully not a full container - I'm the only one who likes it)

My dining room chandelier

Kitchen people serving Hershey kisses on spoons for breakfast!

Did the Leprechaun use the potty?
Lots of TP decorations

He put stickers all over the kids while they slept, build a fort with stuffed animals and hid Easter eggs and candy everywhere.

But this is a writing blog, what does the impish leprechaun have to do with writing you ask? The element of surprise. That little green guy wrecked havoc in the middle of night. He kept my boys busy for HOURS this morning as they tore through the house looking for clues and pranks pulled by the leprechaun. Do the same with your characters and your scenes, especially the dreaded, sagging middle. If you're getting bored with a scene, turn up the mischief. The element of surprise deviates from the anticipated outcome, but make it believable. Create tension. Force your characters out of their comfort zones.

I read a great article by Elizabeth Spann Craig on the element of surprise.

In the article, Craig describes that surprise is used as a distraction, for adding humor or quirkiness, for suspense, as a change of pace and to add depth to a character. She gives great examples on adding surprise to your story. To read the entire article, go here:

My assignment for you is to go back to your WIP, pull out three sagging scenes and weave in elements of surprise.

And for my surprise for you, I've attached a craft to make a writing shamrock that will bring you the luck 'o the Irish for your manuscript.


Have a safe and fun St. Patrick's Day!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

How to Make Your Writing and Editing More Creative, aka, the Power of Blue

by Cynthia Light Brown

It wasn’t a coincidence that Archimedes had his epiphany about buoyancy while taking a bath. There are advantages to not paying attention. When our focus is pulled away and we’re distracted, our unconscious has a chance to make associations between disparate ideas.

As writers, we all know the importance of BIC, or butt in chair. You have to actually get words on paper. But when we hit that wall of creativity, or we need to sift through the ideas we come up with, we need something different. We need distraction and blurriness.

There’s lots of new research that backs up what people have known for a long time. If you’re having difficulty with a difficult plot point or how to make a character more memorable, sleep on it, or take a long, hot shower (check out Jonah Lehrer’s book IMAGINE: HOW CREATIVITY WORKS to be released March 19, or this article in the Wall Street Journal).

But what’s perhaps surprising is that letting ourselves be distracted is even more important to help us discern which ideas are good ones, and which are better left hidden (see here for more on that). Which means that before you take out the editing pen, you need to have time away – the longer the better. And it turns out that this works best if you are happy when you come back to the editing. So just tell your husband (or wife) that you REALLY need to take a week-long trip to the Caribbean to prepare yourself for editing your next best-seller.

Here are a few of my favorite ideas for encouraging creativity, culled and adapted form the WSJ article:

1. Daydream.

2. Pretend you’re a seven-year-old.

3. Think exotic – pretend you’re in a lost civilization, or in Outer Mongolia. Or maybe the Caribbean.

4. Surround yourself with blue (red, on the other hand, helps you be more alert). There’s lots of blue water in the Caribbean.

5. Seat yourself outside a 5-foot-square workspace, which helps you internalize the metaphor of thinking outside the box. This actually, really-truly helps. Who knew.

6. Live abroad. I’m thinking that while I may not be able to actually live abroad, I could take a nice long trip to somewhere like, say, Jamaica.

7. Work when you’re sleepy. This actually helps improve success rates on creative puzzles by 50%.

8. Have a glass of wine. Or two. Think Hemingway.

I’m off to visit St. Lucia (at least in my daydreams...). I’ll spend the day on the beach daydreaming and surrounded by rich, blue water, dig a huge sand castle while pretending to be seven, then head back to the cabana for a few exotic tropical drinks and a late night of editing while sitting next to a large box.

Friday, March 9, 2012

My Old Kentucky. . . Lit Book

By Jenny Ramaley

This photo shows one of my favorite possessions. It’s my Aunt Ruby’s literature book from her rural high school, published in 1943 by the MacMillan Company. I’m not surprised that she never turned it in; the youthful Ruby was what the old-timers called a firecracker. I am ever so grateful she didn’t.

         Old lit books like this are treasures, filled with adventure-laced stories and thought-provoking poems. Each story and the longer poems offered discussion questions – really good ones that made you think. My Ohio high school had a great English program, but anthology books like this were long out of favor by then. This battered, stained textbook supplemented the material my school and library offered, and later became one of my daughter’s favorite books – when she was required to do a dramatic reading in fifth grade, Kels carefully wrapped up this 60 year old book, carted it off to Markham Elementary and read The Oregon Trail poem to her classmates.

        In addition to the content, an intriguing historical feature of this book is the nameplate stamped in the inside front cover. Because this Kentucky textbook asked its users to indicate their race – check one, (    ) WHITE  or  (   ) COLORED.  Seeing this was shocking to me, a child of a northern state. But like the dynamic discussion questions following the book’s stories and poems, this smudged stamp made me think. Why had no one ever checked a category? Were there no persons of color at the school? Why on earth would anyone care who read the book before them? Would white students have rejected a book if it had been assigned to a black student? Or since the category was not checked off, did that mean that no one really cared about the commonwealth’s stamp?

        There are two Langston Hughes poems in this anthology, Dreams, my absolute favorite poem of all time, and Mother to Son. I can’t say I knew then that Hughes was a black man, although nowadays he is a revered son of Cleveland, having spent part of his formative high school years in the city. Nowhere in the textbook notes does it point out that the poems’ author was a man of color.

         Perhaps that would have been the best discussion point of all for a 1940s literature class.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

eHistoricals: Helen Hart's Pirates and Peter St John's Gangs

SC Poe's Indie eBook Sampler, #10

Poe spent the past week in a favorite corner of the Netbook Jungle: Historical Fiction. Alas! Worthy pickings are slim. A good historical cannot be dashed off, for the genre's fans value elements that take pains and time (world-building; research; top-quality editing; often, a distinctive and accurate period "voice").

Yet epublishing and HistFic are made for each other. Readers who like them are avid to find new titles, while Historicals rank low on the list of what big presses publish. (Some editorial and agency wish lists even make a cruel point of specifying no historicals, as a child might say no cauliflower.) Poe therefore entreats authors to dig into your trunks and pull out those rumpled old historical mss. (So many of us have one, with "good" rejections clinging to it like Purple Hearts.) Format them, give them nice covers, and send them into the digital marketplace.

If you know/are an author who's already done that, please contact Poe, who will gladly sample it. See Poe's spanking new sidebar for how to submit.

Poe did uncover several excellent MG Historical authors at a small UK press called SilverWood Books. Not all titles are available as ebooks yet, but Poe recommends these:

The Black Banner
By Helen Hart
SilverWood Books, 2011
Poe thinks this is MG historical (seafaring)

First sentences: October 21st 1719. I am Billy Baxter. What does that name conjure up?

How about imagining a runaway whose real name is Becky, shipping out that day on the Bonny Marie with a cargo for Jamaica? The girl is fleeing her mother, a bawd who's been letting Becky ripen like an apple for the rapidly approaching enjoyment of the disgusting Mr Crudder.

The writing is vigorous, rich, and full of convincing details. The names are delicious, from ship's cook Uriah Flubb to Captain Scabrill and the detested Crudder. The brief sample comes to an arbitrary end in the middle of a sentence, but who cares? We lubbers are already well out to sea, and primed for adventure. If we needed added incentive, the frontispiece has clued us in: there's Piracy afoot!

Helen Hart has published under various names with HarperCollins and other presses. As Sebastian Rook, she pens the Vampire Plague series for Scholastic.

Rated S for Snapped Up.

Gang Territory
(The Gang Books: Gang Territory, Gang Warfare, Gang Rivalry, Gang Loyalty, Gang Petition, Gang Spies)
By Peter St John
SilverWood Books, 2012
Poe thinks this is MG Historical (WWII)

First sentences: I braced my belly against a leaden foreboding that couldn't be vomited out. I knew I would have to fight.

At first, the MC won't give his name. All we know is that his London orphanage was bombed, and he's been evacuated to the country village of Widdlington. In later books, we learn that he is named Peter, like the author, who himself was a "vaccie" during the London Blitz, and who plundered his own vivid memories for these stories.

Nowadays, the word gang makes us expect street crime and violence. In this series, there are a few bullies (hinted at in the opening, above), but for the most part we're reading about mischief and sports competitions. The gangs feel like combination Scout troops and Soap Box Derby teams. Of course, real danger always hovers and occasionally intrudes, for (as the leader of the Go-Getter Girls says in Gang Loyalty), "An' s'pose they decide ter start the invasion at Widdlin'ton—wot then?"

St John has crammed these stories with fascinating details: the school fence, sheared off to make bullets and bombs; the feel, smell and taste of a gas mask; the bucket and plank privy; even a detailed lesson on how to flick marbles.

The core group of characters is well-drawn, and the girls play important roles, too. This aspect, and the quieter feel of the stories, make the series best suited for readerly middle graders.

Rated Q for Queued—all six books—to explore as time permits.