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Friday, April 27, 2012

Revision and Character Growth

Dave Amaditz

When writing for children and young adults we all know of the rule that says our characters should grow throughout the story, to come to some new realization about themselves, the community and\or the world in which they live. But I've been wondering how many of you are like me and have had your characters change from your first revision to your last.

The current novel I'm revising, (see post entitled, When Is the End, the End?) has seen my character change. In the first few chapters of my first draft my main character was an eight-year-old boy. Fortunately, I discovered quickly the story I planned to build around him did not have the necessary details to make the story interesting. After rethinking the vision for my story my main character leapt from an eight-year-old boy to a thirteen-year-old boy. This worked a little better, but it wasn't quite what I wanted. Would fourteen work? I tried that. I thought he was getting closer to developing into the character that met the needs of my story. So, in my next revision I made him a fifteen-year-old. That seemed to work and that's when my story really took off. All the parts of my story began to fit together because I made discoveries about my main character along the way that were necessary for my story to develop correctly, things I didn't know when I began. For example, I know he no longer likes to listen to music since it reminds him of the day he found his father in the basement attempting suicide. I know he doesn't like to drink alcohol because his father is a drunk, yet any time he's given the opportunity to have a drink he can't pass it up. I know how angry he gets when he sees his ex-girlfriend walking arm in arm with his ex-best friend. And I know the little details, too, like the fact that lasagna and meatballs are his favorite food because his grandma makes that for his birthday meal.

I've attended breakout sessions at conferences that talk about how to better learn your characters. I still have the handouts I was given with questions designed to help discover your characters wants, needs and likes. Blue eyes or brown? Rock 'n roll or jazz? Afraid of the dark or not? Some writers don't need the forms. They have a solid vision of what their characters like and need from the start. But my discoveries about my characters come as I revise. In that sense, the dreaded revision is not so dreaded because I can look forward to finding out new and exciting details about my novel, the characters and how they interact.

Is there anyone out there in the same boat as me?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Newbery Game

I love opening paragraphs, unless I don’t. Depending on my mood, I sometimes won’t give a book more than the first three or four sentences before I bail. I can move down an entire aisle in the library that way--pulling, re-shelving, pulling, re-shelving. So I can only imagine an editor tackling submissions day after day, and that if my opening paragraph isn’t dynamic, chances are it will be re-shelved.
I thought it would be a good exercise to read through some of the Newbery winners beginnings.  And then I came up with a little game. For those of you who faithfully read the Newbery winners, you might like to see how many opening paragraphs you can match to the correct title. I don’t go back farther than 1981 and have limited space. The choices, if you need a little help are listed at the bottom. The answers follow the titles, but are written in code.  
  1. There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. There once was a very large lake here, the largest Lake in Texas. That was over a hundred years ago. Now it is just a dry, flat wasteland.
2. On a night when the moon gazed down like an evil eye, the young prince appeared in Jemmy’s chamber.
              “Boy! Tumble out of bed. I need a manservant.”
3. In Jonas’s world, turning twelve changes everything. He will finally receive his life assignment: perhaps he will become a caretaker of the old, or a childcare worker. The Elders will choose for him, Based on his aptitudes.
4. Brat opened one eye. A woman was there, a woman neither old not young but in between. Neither fat nor thin but in between. An important looking woman with a sharp nose and a sharp glance and a wimple starched into sharp pleats.
5. “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.
6. As soon as the snow melts, I will go to Rass and fetch my mother. At Crisfield I’ll board the ferry, climbing down into the cabin where the women always ride, but after forty minutes of sitting on the hard cabin bench, I’ll stand up to peer out of the high forward windows, straining for the first sight of my island.
7. So Mom got the postcard today. It says Congratulations in big curly letters, and at the very top is the address of Studio TV-15 on West 58th Street. After three years of trying, she has actually made it. She’s going to be a contestant on The $20,000 Pyramid, which is hosted by Dick Clark.
8. There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife. The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately.  
                   The Whipping Boy ('87)      Sarah, Plain and Tall ('86)    Holes ('99)   
                         Jacob, Have I Loved ('81)       The Midwife’s Apprentice  ('96)

               The Graveyard Book ('09)     The Giver ('94)     When You Reach Me  ('10)
 1. seloH, rahcaS siuoL 
 2. yoB gnippihW ehT, namhcsielF diS
 3. reviG ehT, yrwoL sioL
 4. ecitnerppA s’efiwdiM ehT, namhsuC neraK
 5. llaT dna nialP, haraS, nalhcaLcaM aicirtaP
 6. devoL I evaH bocaJ, nosrettaP enirehtaK
 7. eM hcaeR uoY nehW, deatS accebeR
 8. kooB daryevarG, namiaG lieN

Wise Words from EB White

"Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly."

Saturday, April 21, 2012

I've been bad

This isn't my day to post but I've been bad, very bad, and I, Kitty Griffin, need to confess.

I've ignored an old friend for far too long.

My library.

I have two Kindles.
And I've been flicking and clicking and scrolling and rolling.

But today Sparrow needed to play.
She's just turned one and it was a morning where she was tired of me, tired of her Mom, annoyed with her Pap, and the rain outside came down cold and gray. Look at this face! She needed to romp.

I remembered the playroom at the library.

So off we went. Vroom. Vroom.

Wonderful! There were two little boys for her to watch. She shrieked with joy and crawled off to rumble and tumble and roar.

With her Mom watching her I started looking at books.
And I got tingles.

Because I've missed the library. I just didn't realize how much.

There was a picture book on display with the wackiest title I've ever seen. "The Obstinate Pen by Frank W. Dormer. Here's an illustration from it.
What a silly, charming, strange little story.
It's all about a pen. This pen wants to do what this pen wants to do. You'll have to read it to find out what happens.

Then, as Sparrow played with a giant stuffed dog, I saw another book that I decided to pick up. It's an odd-shaped book, about 12 inches wide and 6 inches high. It's a Young Adult graphic novel by Youme Landowne and Anthony Horton. 

This is a remarkable and powerful story. I'd go so far as to use the word stunning, which I save for very special stories. It's a story about people who live in the dark and how they survive. It's a world that very few of us know. It's not a pretty story.
If you have a special young adult in your life who cares about other people and wants to understand the strength of the human spirit, well, this book would be good for them. Read it yourself first. Oh, have some tissues on hand.

I also found a nifty scifi set in the near future called "Dark Life" by Kat Falls. It's all about people who've chosen to live on the ocean floor. Then I saw a Newbery Honor book called "Breaking Stalin's Nose" by Eugene Yelchin. I took this out because I'm fascinated with history and this is set during a very exciting time. The book has quite a few awards. I also saw one that I knew I'd have to take out just because of the title, "The Inquisitor's Apprentice." It's by Chris Moriarty and I just love the opening sentence, "The day Sacha found out he could see witches was the worst day of his life." Glorious! I know this will be fun.
Finally, on the sale shelf I saw a dear old friend. This is a book that I know if I were sent away to serve a prison sentence on a desert island and I could only take ten books this would be one of them, "A Canticle for Leibowitz" by Walter M. Miller, Jr. I got this treasure for fifty cents. The first time I read this book I wept when I finished it because I was so in love with the characters. I didn't want them to go. Brother Francis Gerard is one of the most remarkable characters ever created. Seriously. Ever. 

So, you've got my confession. 
The library. A place of treasures. We need libraries and they need us. It's a symbiotic relationship that nurtures our souls as we continue on our pilgrim's journey, trying to become both good writer, good reader. Because to be a good writer you must be a good reader.
I do love my Kindle, but it cannot, will not, ever replace the library.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Author! Author

by Judy Press

Several years ago I gave a lecture about creativity to a group of teachers. I started my talk by telling them about the time I met with the super-successful mystery writer Sue Grafton (“A” is for Alibi, “B” is for Burglar, etc. etc.) I had gone to our local bookstore to have her autograph my copy of her latest book. I waited in line and when my turn came I asked her a question about the schedule she keeps and the discipline she must have to write so many books. She graciously answered my questions and then she asked me if I was also a writer. At that time my first book THE LITTLE HANDS ART BOOK (Williamson Publishing Co.) had just been released.

I told her about my book and how proud my husband and four children were of my accomplishment. “Well, isn’t it wonderful to be known as a writer and to have an identity separate from being a mom,” she responded. A short time after my meeting with Sue Grafton our local newspaper called me and asked to do an interview about my book. I gladly accepted the opportunity to get the word out. When the newspaper arrived several days later I anxiously turned to the section where the article was to appear.

It began as follows: A Mount Lebanon mother of four has published a book…. Here’s a quick and easy craft to enjoy with your kids!

Playful Puppy Puppet

Here’s what you need: Child safety scissors Construction paper Paper lunch bag (white or brown) Wiggly eyes (caution: supervise with very young children) Pom-pom Marker Here’s what you do: 1. Cut out the puppy’s ears, paws, and tail from the construction paper. Fold under the corners of the flap of the bag. Glue the paws onto the front of the bag. Glue the tail onto the back of the bag. 2. Glue on the puppy’s wiggly eyes and pom-pom nose. Use the marker to draw the puppy’s spots.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Should parents publish the books their children write?


The New York Times article ("Young Writers Dazzle Publisher (Mom and Dad)") describes the TV news coverage as "breathless." The Old Gray Lady sounds a tad breathless herself, hyperventilating over the threat coming from "hundreds [emphasis ours] of children and teens who are self-publishing books each year."

The Times quotes the novelist Tom Robbins, who frets about what might come next—"'Kiddie architects, juvenile dentists, 11-year-old rocket scientists?'" and adds, "'There are no prodigies in literature."

We have the greatest admiration for Robbins, who is reputed to be a painstaking craftsman—he can spend an entire day perfecting a single sentence—and who published his debut novel in his 30's. But on this point we disagree. For we believe that in literature, as in other arts, prodigies do occasionally appear. Consider Christopher Paolini. Consider this tween writer:

Nor is self-publishing by children a new phenomenon:

The self-styled Genius C. B. who edited this issue of the Young Mens Magazine in 1829 was, of course, Charlotte Bronte. Along with her siblings, she wrote and illustrated page after tiny page of youthful stories, plays, and poems, and stitched them into miniature magazines.

Granted, the Bronte juvenilia are curiosities that few read today. So it's fair to ask, of today's "hundreds" of new, parent-pubbed stories, how they'll be judged by actual readers. To answer that question, at least for ourselves, we sampled the work of the six young authors featured in the Times article. And we found two whose writing piqued our interest.

Running Scared
By Mac Bowers
IUniverse, 2012
Poe thinks this isYA contemporary thriller

First sentence: That morning, on my first day in Mistle, Mom insisted on driving me to school.

Bowers is 15. Her sample struck us as comparable to many adult-authored genre ebooks we've sampled. It has better grammar and editing than quite a few. The sample quickly builds the mystery and hints at romance, as any good genre novel should. The blurb could do a better job of hooking readers—it's so general it could apply to almost any thriller. (A blurb should tell us what makes this story different from every other story, Ms Bowers.) Still,

If you enjoy thrillers, then the sample should tell you whether you want to read this one.

The Last Dove:
The Trilogy of Aeir
By E. S. Hines
XLibris, 2012
Poe thinks this is younger YA fantasy

First sentences: Since the beginning of our races here on the isle of Aeir, we have had magic. Not parlor tricks, but real magic; the kind that allows a fully clothed man to turn into an animal of his choice and back into a human being, to Change.

This high school junior writes with a lyrical voice perfect for painting her unusual world. In Aeir, the choice of which animal to become is passed down through generations, creating competitive tribes who specialize in certain skills—the Otters are boatbuilders; the Wolves, warriors; the Swans, musicians. Only the Doves "loved freely and married whomever they wished," weakening their blood lines and diminishing their special skill--peacemaking. This has thrown Aeir into turmoil. An intriguing premise.

If you enjoy animal fantasy, then check out her sample.

It's curious that the Times column doesn't actually critique the writing itself. Rather, the article's focus is the concern expressed by those who "see the blurring of the line between publishing and self-publishing as a lost opportunity to teach children about adversity and perseverance."

Adversity and perseverance. Really? Is this what people believe? That writing and reading should be work for kids, not fun? That writing should never provide easy gratification? That kids who enjoy writing should be taught early on just how difficult and discouraging the publishing world can be?

That's not what we think. In fact, we're not convinced that it hurts kids at all when a parent enables them to self-publish.

After all, being "published" is never the final affirmation. Connecting with readers is. One publisher of kid-written stories says that "When the kids get the box of books with their name on it . . . they're like little rock stars." True; it feels terrific to be published. But not nearly as good as when total strangers buy your story, and beg for another.

There's another reason not to fight this new trend. It can't be done! Kids know this, even if older folks don't. You don't need Dad's money to make your story "real." All you need is determination and access to the Web. (Had the Net existed in 1829, do you think the Brontes would have settled for swapping miniature hand-written magazines with their siblings?)

All right. We've said our say. What do you think?

Susan Chapek collaborated with SC Poe on today's column.

NOTE. Bronte images (MS Lowell 1. Bequest of Amy Lowell, 1925) are used with permission of the Houghton Library, Harvard University. Click here to see more images.

Monday, April 16, 2012


Happy National Poetry Month!  What better way to celebrate the rhyming season than with this adorable bee book written and illustrated by Douglas Florian, always a favorite of mine.  Florian has regaled us with poetry collections over the years celebrating trees, dinosaurs, seasons, insects, dogs and fish, and now tackles the honeybee.  The poems themselves are as clever as ever...

The Beekeepers are "the boys in the hood"...
"We're keeping the bees. 
  We fret and we fuss. 
  We're keeping the bees. 
  Or do they keep us?"

Bee-coming teaches us...
"From egg I hatch in just three days,
  Bee-ginning my new larval phase. 
  I dwell in a six-sided cell. 
  My cozy home bee-fits me well..."

And my favorite Summer Hummer plays with words delightfully...
"I'm the hummer of summer,
  So busy with buzz. 
  A never-humdrummer 
  All covered with fuzz..."

Florian takes us from bee anatomy through drones, queens and workers, to swarms, hives, honey, and pollen.  He even includes a scary poem about the all too real phenomenon of Colony Collapse Disorder. At the end of the collection is a BEEbliography as well for further reading.  Perhaps the most notable detail about the book 'beesides' the outstanding rhyme is the inclusion on each page of a snippet of information that provides just a wee bit more for bee fans.  We learn that all worker bees are 'sisters', that queen bees are fed royal jelly and that there are 20,000 known species of bees but fewer than ten known species of honeybees.  Food for thought! I highly recommend this honey of a book.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Turning Points and How to Write Like You Want To

by Cynthia Light Brown

I like writing turning points. I like the tension, dialogue, subtle nuances that signal to the reader what’s really happening. I dislike writing description, whether of a person or a place or occurrence. I also dislike writing transitions. But if the transition is a turning point? Game on.

I was just trying to write a scene of a competition taking place in my novel. I started with the transition from the last scene because the reader needs that, right? It was so painful…every…word…was…like…a…tooth…extraction. And that’s just what it felt like writing it. I imagine reading it wouldn’t be as bad, because the reader would simply stop reading. Problem solved.

So I imagined that this scene was the opening chapter of a sequel with high-stakes tension. I had to engage the reader, suck them in with minimal description. Presto! The writing was flowing along, much more interesting than before. I can always add in VERY short bits of description or “transition” later during editing.

Find the stuff you like to write. Then just write that stuff.

Back to transitions and turning points. What’s the difference between them? You could define them both as: when something changes. The difference is tension and importance. A turning point has tension and something important is happening. If all you have is a transition, it better not be more than a few words, especially if you’re writing for kids. Why would they read for very long when there’s no tension and nothing important is happening?

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Aaron Shepard's cool classical paranormals and myth mash-ups


Aaron Shepard is a professional storyteller with a long list of traditionally-published books to his credit. Most are adaptations or retellings of folk and fairy tales, legends, and myths--often, more obscure (but fascinating) ones. His books have been deemed A.L.A. Notables, Aesop Accolade winners, and Bank Street College and N.Y. Times Bests. And they're frequently "selected" by the New York Public Library, the California Collection, and the Junior Library Guild.

But it's Shepard's self-published list that Poe wants to focus on today. First, a novel that twists the tale of a lesser-known legendary monster:

Timothy Tolliver and the Bully Basher

Self-published by Skyhook Press, 2005
Poe thinks this is paranormal contemporary MG myth mash-up

First sentence of online sample: Arnie walked all around the robot, admiring it. "You know what this reminds me of? The Golem."

Legends describe the Golem as a giant, animated clay warrior created to protect the Jews of Prague against persecutors. Here, the threat comes from classroom bullies, and fourth-graders Timmy and Arnie hope to find a defender in their science-project robot. But like the original, Timmy's Golem acquires a will of its own.

Rated S for Snapped up.

Taking a more literary turn, Shepard's Ancient Fantasy Series retells portions of four epic narratives sure to pique kids' interest. In each case, he cannily selects episodes likely to grab the attention of a wide range of middle-graders. His storytelling voice varies to hint at the style (prose or poetry, grandiose or conversational, noble or comical) of the original. These mini-novels would make fun classroom read-alouds, too. No dumb-downs, they use the real names of people and places, and provide information on how to pronounce them.

The Mountain of Marvels
A Celtic Tale of Magic
Retold from the Mabinogion

Self-published by Skyhook Press, 2007

First sentence of online sample: The next day, after the midday meal, Pwyll said to Manawydan, "Let us walk again on the Mount. But this time, we'll bring my horse along."

A series of interrelated bard-told tales about a Welsh King and Queen. Familiar notes and themes (such as the marvelous sack that can never be filled) may remind some readers how tales from distant times and places all seem to have sprung from the same batch of original story seeds


The Songs of Power
A Finnish Tale of Magic
Retold from the Kalevala

Self-published by Skyhook, 2007

First lines of online sample: Vainamoinen chanted / and Joukahainen sank in the marshy ground, / up to his waist in the swallowing earth.

The builder of the world and the forger of the sky compete for the hand of a sorceress's daughter.

The Monkey King
A Superhero Tale of China
Retold from The Journey to the West

First sentences: If you think Superman or Spiderman has been around a long time, think about Monkey. He has been China's favorite superhero for at least five centuries.

The newborn Monkey's eyes shoot golden rays that penetrate even the walls of Heaven. He is "destined to become an enlightened being, a true Buddha. Yet before he does, he will offer us no end of mischief." Shepard selects two episodes from the epic—Monkey's birth, and "the one time he didn't come out on top."

The Magic Flyswatter
A Superhero Tale of Africa
Retold from the Mwindo Epic

Self-published by Skyhood Press, 2008

First sentences in the online sample: She-Mwindo heard the noise. He went to the house of his favorite wife. He saw the boy and was full of rage. "What is this? Did I not say 'no sons'? Did I not say I would kill him?"

But when the father throws his spear, the baby breaks the weapon in two. Who wouldn't want to read on?

All four books Rated S for Snapped up.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Sharing Egg-cellent Advice

by Marcy Collier

Over the weekend I took my kids to a giant Easter egg hunt where a helicopter flew over a field and dropped thousands of Easter eggs. Sounds fun, right? That's what I thought until the rules were announced that parents weren't allowed on the field with the kids. I stood on the sidelines for about 40 seconds, until panic took over because I could no longer see my kids amongst the thousands of overly eager egg-hunting children.

My older son wearing bright red, I found immediately. I had lost sight of my younger son in navy blue for ten agonizing minutes until he found us.

Over the weekend I also read about another fear of mine - pitching an agent. I don't fear this as much as losing one of my children in a crowd, but pitching still makes me pretty nervous. I regularly read Kathy Temean's blog which is full of helpful and inspiring advice for writers and illustrators. Her April 1st post had some egg-cellent advice on pitches.

Below were some of her tips for a five minute pitch:

1. Write down what you want to say about your book.

2. Read and time it, so you leave a minute for the editor to respond.

3. Now e-mail it to a few writer friends to get their opinions.

4. Tweak your text accordingly.

5. Practice using someone in your family or critique group to help get you comfortable.

6. Don’t show up with your text written down and try reading it to the agent.  You should be able to talk about your book without reading it – BORING!

7. Pull a Sarah Palin and write a few key points on the inside of your hand, so if you choke you can take a quick glance.

8. Don’t rush your words. Make it feel like a conversation on the phone with a good friend.

9. Remember that it is just a pitch, so don’t get nervous. If you do all the above things in advance, you will have more confidence going in and that will help keep you from going off course.

Have an egg-cellent holiday!