Details, Details

Quiz time for fiction writers. No need to fear. This is easy.

  • As you think of the main character(s) in your work-in-progress, what color is that character’s hair? Eyes? (See? Easy-peasy.)

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  • Does he or she have a nickname? If so, what is it?
  • Where does that character live? Town, city, or rural community? What is the character’s street address (or what are the landmarks that lead to this dwelling if an address can’t be given)? This can be a made-up address like 1313 Mockingbird Lane. Kudos to whoever knows this address from an old TV show. Skip to the very end of the post to see if you are right.
  • What animals are in this character’s life (like a pet or a warhorse)? What are their names? Species? Colors?

Now think of a secondary character and answer the above questions. If you have fifty secondary characters, could you easily answer the same questions about all of them?

By now you are probably wondering why I’m being so nosy. Well, for one thing, sometimes I forget some of the information about my characters, especially in a book with fifty plus characters. That’s why I have to keep a list of people, places, and things, especially when I am writing a series. But I keep a list even for a standalone book with fewer characters. Nowadays I add to the list as I write the book. I remember how tedious it was to write the list after the book was done.

I’m wondering how many authors keep a list of pertinent character information. Some authors have told me they keep track of everything in their head. Do you? If you don’t keep a list, would you consider doing so? I ask this also as someone who wears the freelance book editor hat from time to time. I have had to email or text authors to inquire about hair and eye color, names, addresses, etc. because of inconsistencies found while editing.

Speaking of other useful things to have, I also think of a timeline sheet for a book. Do you keep a list of the day-to-day events (for example, June 4—the Fruit Fly Festival in Harbor Creek)? If you say a book starts on a Tuesday in April and ends on a Wednesday in May, do you check a calendar to make sure the timing of the story events works? If you’re writing historical fiction, do you search the internet to see if May 4, 1925 really was on a Monday as you mentioned in your manuscript? (It really was on a Monday, by the way.)

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Maybe you’re thinking, Why should I do any of this? The editor is going to check all of that. True. But why not do it for your own sake, instead of waiting for a busy editor to take time out of his or her day to ask you questions about inconsistencies. After all, none of us is perfect. Okay, I take it back. You are. But for everyone else, if you keep a list, maybe the questions won’t have to be asked by an editor (or a reader, who might not be kind).

This public service broadcast was brought to you by I-will-now-mind-my-own-business.

And now onto the winners (finally) of the following books written by Charles Yallowitz and Sandra Nickel respectively. (Click here and here for the interview posts with these authors.)

savagery TheStuffBetweenTheStars

New Charles Author Photo SandraNickel

The winner of The Stuff Between the Stars is Marian Beaman. The winner of War of Nytefall: Savagery is S.K. Van Zandt.

Marian and S. K. Van Zandt, please comment below to confirm. Thank you for commenting!

Address Answer: 1313 Mockingbird Lane is the home of the Munster family in The Munsters.

Author photos and book covers courtesy of the authors. Eye image from lolwot.com. May calendar image from dreamstime.

Check This Out—The Stuff Between the Stars: How Vera Rubin Discovered Most of the Universe

Welcome to the blog! Returning to the blog today is the awesome Sandra Nickel, who is here to talk about her latest picture book biography, The Stuff Between the Stars: How Vera Rubin Discovered Most of the Universe. It was published by Abrams in March of this year and was illustrated by the amazing Aimée Sicuro.

SandraNickel   TheStuffBetweenTheStars

Check out the fab book trailer.

If you’ve been around the blog over the years, you know the drill. Once I talk to Sandra, I’ll tell you how you can get this book for free in a drawing that I am hosting.

El Space: Since your picture book is all about astronomy: If you could name a star, what would you name it?
Sandra:
Does it have to be one star? Or can it be a star cluster like the Pleiades? I always loved the idea of the Seven Sisters, up in the sky, named after their mother. My mother gave birth to three of us. Maybe we could be the Eleanores.

El Space: How did you come to this project? Sadly, I didn’t know anything about Vera Rubin until I read your book. I certainly didn’t know her connection to the study of dark matter.
Sandra:
I also didn’t know about Vera Rubin, not until Kate Hosford (below), a wonderful picture book author, texted me and told me about a tribute to her in The New York Times. I read the article and was captivated. I started researching that very day.

red photo cropped

El Space: Tell us about the research. How did your findings help you decide on the story angle? At what point did you decide you’d done enough research to make a start or to conclude the writing?
Sandra:
When I read The New York Times article, Vera had died two days before and papers were flooded with homages to her. After reading these, I found articles and a book Vera had written. The greatest discoveries, however, were interviews with Vera. They gave such a clear vision of her personality, childhood, home life, and struggles.

For the most part, editors no longer require picture book biographies to tell a person’s story from cradle to grave. They are looking for a story that fits into the classic story structure. Introduction. Rising Action. Climax. Resolution. I had the introduction early on, because Vera said she fell in love with stars when she was eleven. The climax had to be her discovery. That left me searching for rising action. Vera had so many challenges thrown in her path—far more than made it into the book. Once I was confident that I had found the most important ones, I knew I had enough to start putting the rising action together. The trick was to select experiences that resonate with children. I chose the experience illustrated below because everyone can understand how awful it is to be the only one against a crowd.

Vera Facing the Senior Astronomers

El Space: Your book is so beautifully written. How challenging was it to explain scientific concepts in picture book form?
Sandra:
From the beginning, I knew I needed to come up with imagery that would help children understand. I searched and searched for different ways to describe gravity, galaxies, and dark matter. Once I had all of these in my head, it became very clear that these same descriptions could be used to portray Vera Rubin’s life itself. It was challenging from the point of view of filling my mind with new ideas. Minds don’t always want to accept new things. But once that was done, it wasn’t challenging at all. The metaphors appeared as if they had always been there.

El Space: How long was the process from writing to publication? Did you have much contact with the illustrator, Aimée Sicuro? Why or why not?
Sandra:
It took over four years from the afternoon I read The New York Times article to the day The Stuff Between the Stars came out. With some nonfiction picture books, the writer and illustrator need to exchange information because the writer discovers photographs and descriptions through private sources not available to the general public. My book Nacho’s Nachos was that way. The Stuff Between the Stars was completely different. There are a number of photographs of Vera Rubin online, and Aimée Sicuro discovered each one of them. She asked for only one thing from me: one of Vera’s equations. She incorporated it into the gorgeous illustration below where Vera stays up working at night as her family sleeps.

Vera Working at Night as Her Family Sleeps

El Space: What did you learn about Vera’s life that inspired you in your own life?
Sandra:
The greatest Vera Rubin lesson is: Choose your own way. I know that seems cliché. But it’s harder than it sounds. It’s easy to fall into thinking that life is just hard, that suffering is part of the journey. I love that Vera said, I don’t like being treated harshly, I don’t like all the negativity. I love that she found a way far from all that and then discovered something bigger than everyone else. I’ll never discover something as immense as dark matter, but by doing things my way, my writing will hopefully be infused with joy. Because it makes me happy. And that is marvelous already.

El Space: What will you work on next?
Sandra:
There’s a book I’m working on right now with an editor that I hope will bring readers the kind of joy I’m talking about. It involves a very big bear and a very little fish who see the world in very different ways.

Thank you, Sandra for being my guest!

If you want to learn more about The Stuff Between the Stars, check out this video produced by the Smithsonian. In it, Sandra reads the book and interviews Aimée Sicuro. You’ll also see a fun demonstration by Aimée on painting a galaxy.

Looking for Sandra? Check out her website, Twitter, and Instagram.

Looking for The Stuff Between the Stars? Look for it at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Indiebound, Bookshop, or your favorite local bookstore.

But one of you will look in your mailbox or tablet and go, “Oh my goodness! A free book!” Comment below to be entered in a drawing to receive a copy of The Stuff Between the Stars. Winner to be announced sometime next week.

Author photo, book spreads, and book cover courtesy of the author. Illustrations by Aimée Sicuro. Author photo credit: Emo-Photo. 

Creating Conflict

I recently broke one of my rules by deliberately reading a spoiler-filled book. Though I have not yet seen the animated movie WolfWalkers (now on Apple TV), I read with delight the pages of The Art of WolfWalkers, a book by Charles Solomon that is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film. The film (click the movie title above to learn more about the movie) has some fantasy elements, but is based on real events in history. Click here to read more about those events.

  

The book was given to me by a friend (thank you, Sharon). I don’t have Apple TV, so there is no telling when I’ll see the film. But I love the work of the studio that produced it (Cartoon Saloon), and the director behind it—Tomm Moore, an Irish filmmaker who has helmed some of the movies that are now among my all-time favorites: Song of the Sea (2014) and The Secret of Kells (2009). So I’m usually interested in anything that helps me learn about his creative process.

  

An exercise the book mentions intrigued me:

Tomm heard Jim [Capobianco, a story artist whose work Moore admires, who had the idea for the film Ratatouille along with director Brad Bird] say that when he’s trying to come up with ideas, he writes two lists: things he loves and things he hates. Obviously, all good stories have conflict, so he would make the lists to find the conflicts he needed. That’s what Tomm and Ross [Stewart, the co-director of WolfWalkers] did. (New York: Abrams, 2020. 15)

I found that fascinating, because the creation of conflict(s) in a story has always been challenging for me. Yes, I know that conflict is essential to the plot and comes from the way characters relate to each other, based on their characteristics and beliefs. And this is not to say that making these lists is the thing to do for every story. But if you’re stuck, you might give the list making a try. I plan to do so!

If creating conflicts comes easily to you, got any tips you’d like to share? While you think about that, I will move on to the winner of Rural Voices, an anthology of stories acquired and contributed to by Nora Shalaway Carpenter. For the interview with Nora, click here.

  

The winner of that book is Marie!

Marie, please comment below to confirm. Thank you to all who commented.

Song of the Sea DVD cover from dvdsreleasedates.com. Secret of Kells DVD cover from mysfreviews.com. Tomm Moore from purepeople.com. Book covers and author photo courtesy of the author. Photo credit: Chip Bryan. Other photos by L. Marie.

Check This Out: The Unicorns Who Saved Christmas

With me on the blog today is the marvelous Mary Winn Heider, another Secret Gardener classmate, who is here today to talk about her picture book, The Unicorns Who Saved Christmas, which was published by Running Press Kids. Mary Winn is represented by Tina DuBois.

 

El Space: How on earth did you come up with this concept? Why unicorns?
Mary Winn: And of course the flip side to that coin, how could it possibly be anything but unicorns!

El Space: Good point!
Mary Winn: The truth is that I didn’t come up with the idea—my editor pitched me the premise and I thought it just sounded like so much fun. So I started with the idea that Santa has to use unicorns instead of reindeer, and then I experimented with a variety of scenarios explaining why it had to happen and how it ended up like that, which included both a Magical Animal Temp Staffing Agency and a parody version of The Night Before Christmas. I really love the wild brainstorming phase. But the more I worked on it, the more I was drawn to this very sweet unicorn troop who were absolutely bowled over to be invited to audition as reindeer substitutes. There is something so adorable to me about these fantastic, magical, stylish unicorns being so gaga about Santa.

El Space: Your book is so funny and quirky—a really tough balancing act to pull off. I can’t help thinking of Santa Cows by Cooper Eden, though your book isn’t about cows. 😄 I also think of Elf, a movie I love watching each year. It seems to take just the right balance to keep the humor from sinking into the sea of coy. How do you achieve that balance? I can’t help thinking of your novel, The Mortification of Fovea Munson [click here for the interview with Mary Winn about that book], which also has that balance.

 

Mary Winn: That’s such a lovely compliment—thank you for that, Linda. I agree with you that the balance is important, and while I’m drafting, I definitely err on one side and the other. That overstepping is a really useful part of my writing process—and I think for how I write, the metaphor really works: it feels exactly like being on a balance beam. I start off making big swings and toppling into the tries that don’t quite work, and then gradually making more nuanced adjustments until I feel a sort of intuitive rightness. I don’t have an algorithm so much as a very, very loose recipe. I like to make sure that as absurd and ridiculous as I get (and I like to get real absurd and ridiculous—my writing partner on my current project just sent me comments on a chapter today, which included the note, Mary Winn, this is preposterous. And to be clear, I consider that a really positive note)—as absurd as I go, I make sure that the story always stays grounded in something true and real. In this case, it’s the unicorns’ sincere need to not let Santa down.

El Space: So glad to hear about your process and the hard work you put into your books. And I love the illustrations! How much input did you have with the illustrator, Christian Cornia?
Mary Winn: I didn’t talk to Christian until after the book was out, but I adooooooore the way he drew the unicorns. All the little details, like that How to Rainbow book that one of them is reading at the top—just to die for. And the crocodiles! That crocodiles spread is among my favorite things ever.

El Space: That is a great spread in the book [which you can see part of if you click here and scroll down]! What Christmas book, if any, did you love to read when you were a kid or as an adult? Why?
Mary Winn: Hmmm. . . . Good question. I don’t actually recall one that I liked to read specifically at Christmas. I was a weird, indiscriminate kid, and loved to read seasonal books all year. But I do associate Christmas with reading, because I’d be off from school and I could just read the entire break!

El Space: What will you work on next?
Mary Winn: My next novel—The Losers at the Center of the Galaxy—comes out in March, so I’m starting to think about that book again. It’s funny how they sort of hibernate in your brain between the time that you finish them and they come out. And I’m working on a really exciting hybrid graphic/prose novel with an illustrator pal. It’s definitely the most exciting part of my days right now!

Thanks as always, Mary Winn, for being my guest.

Looking for Mary Winn? You can find her by clicking on one of these:
Website, Highlights, Twitter, Instagram, and Barrel of Monkeys.

Looking for The Unicorns Who Saved Christmas? Look here: Indiebound, Barnes and Noble, and Bookshop

But one of you will receive a copy at your home! Ho-ho-ho! (After Christmas, sadly, but something to look forward to.) Comment below to be entered in the drawing. Winner to be announced early next week.

 

When my copy of The Unicorns Who Saved Christmas arrived, Henry quickly commandeered it. “And look how nicely it fits under the Christmas tree,” he said, I guess as a hint for me to get him a copy of the book since I snatched mine back.

Random squirrel meme:

Mary Winn’s book covers are from her website. Author photo by Popio Stumpf. Santa Cows cover from Goodreads. Elf movie poster from Ebay. Random squirrel meme from sayingimages.com. Balance beam image from HuffPost. Henry photos by L. Marie, who is grateful for her copy of The Unicorns Who Saved Christmas.

Cover Reveal—Saint Ivy: Kind at All Costs

Today on the blog I’m delighted to have with me the always fabulous Laurie Morrison, another of my splendid Secret Gardener classmates. Laurie is here to talk about the cover of her upcoming middle grade novel, Saint Ivy: Kind at All Costs (Abrams/Amulet Books). Laurie is represented by Sara Crowe.

Feast your eyes!

Here is the synopsis:

A thoughtful middle-grade novel about caring for others and for yourself—and what it truly means to be kind and vulnerable

Thirteen-year-old Ivy Campbell has always been a good kid: She supports her soccer-star brother, bakes with her nana, and puts her friends’ needs before her own. So of course, Ivy is 100 percent supportive when her mom decides to be a gestational surrogate. But when Ivy finds out the surrogacy treatment worked and her mom is pregnant—and has been for weeks—she’s shocked that she’s jealous and worried about what others will think. And most of all, she’s ashamed that she isn’t reacting to this news in the right way. The Ivy way. Ivy is determined to prove to herself that she’s just as unselfish as she’s always believed, and she gets the chance to do that when she receives an anonymous email from someone who needs her help. But the more Ivy dives into helping this anonymous person, the further she gets from the people she loves—and from the person who she wants to be.

El Space: When Saint Ivy was accepted for publication, what thoughts, if any, did you have about what the cover might look like? How involved were you in the cover process?
Laurie: I didn’t have a concrete vision for the cover, but I figured my publishing team would want it to pair well with the cover for my last novel, Up for Air. So I thought this cover would also have bold, bright colors, and I assumed it would be illustrated, rather than using a photo as some MG covers do. I was right about those things! But I also thought it might have more than one character on it. I was vaguely picturing Ivy in the middle with other characters around her. A lot of the plot is centered around some anonymous emails Ivy receives, and at different points in the book, she thinks different people might be the mystery emailer. So I thought maybe the characters she thinks could be emailing her would be surrounding her in the middle or something like that. But I love what they went with instead!

I wasn’t involved in coming up with the concept, but I was asked to provide a list of character descriptions back at the beginning of 2020, before the book had gone through edits, so that the team knew what all the characters looked like when they began cover discussions. And then I saw a few different versions once they’d settled on the concept, and my agent and I gave some feedback about Ivy’s appearance and the color scheme. The designer and illustrator made some great tweaks to accommodate our feedback, and it came together really well!

El Space: I love the cover! Who designed it? Who illustrated it?
Laurie: Thank you, me too! Jason Ford did the illustrations and Marcie Lawrence is the designer.

El Space: What was your reaction to the cover?
Laurie: From the first time I saw an early version, I loved the concept. I thought it was so smart, fun, and fresh. My editor and I had gone back and forth a lot about whether Saint Ivy was the right title for the book, because it’s not a book about religion. It fits the book well in a lot of ways, but we wanted to make sure the title wouldn’t give the wrong idea about the story. I’m so happy with the way the cover leans into the “saint” idea and plays around with it. The inspiration was to create a “lives of the saints” style fresco, but with fun modern objects that relate to Ivy’s story instead of religious iconography. I love the illustration style, which reminds me of the style for Up for Air even though it’s a different illustrator, and I think it’s really intriguing to have all those objects around Ivy because it raises questions about how they all fit together. As a reader, I would look at the cover and be eager to find out what all the items mean—if I hadn’t already read the book 500 thousand times, that is 😊. I also love Ivy’s hair—which is a lot like mine!—and her outfit. The first version I saw wasn’t yellow, and when I saw the final version with the color change, I was excited. It’s so vibrant!

El Space: When can we expect to see Saint Ivy out in the world?
Laurie: It’s coming out on May 18, 2021! And the paperback of Up for Air will release the month before, on April 13, with a sneak peek at the beginning of Saint Ivy inside.

El Space: Yay! I understand you have some other great book news. Please share!
Laurie: Yes, thank you! I’ve been working on an upper middle grade softball book called Coming Up Short, and it sold to my wonderful editor, Maggie Lehrman, and is slated to come out in spring 2022. Here’s the short pitch: After her father’s very public fall from grace, thirteen-year-old Bea self-destructs during the biggest game of her life. She doesn’t know how to connect with her dad if she isn’t a star shortstop, so she sets off on a summer trip to stay with her estranged aunt and attend a softball camp where she’s determined to fix her throw to first base and, hopefully, her family.

It partly takes place in a fictionalized New Jersey town that’s a lot like where I grew up, and it partly takes place in Gray Island, the setting from Up for Air! I’m very excited and grateful to get to keep working with Maggie and the whole team at Abrams, and this story is especially personal and important to me. Plus, I just love writing about girls playing sports!

El Space: Thank you for being my guest, Laurie!
Laurie: Thanks so much for having me and for your awesome questions!

Looking for Laurie? Check out her website, Instagram, and Twitter.

And while you wait for Saint Ivy to debut, check out Laurie’s other books.

  

Comment below to be entered into a drawing for a preorder of Saint Ivy! Winner to be announced some time next week (once I make my deadline).

Author photo and book covers courtesy of Laurie Morrison. Author photo credit: Laura Billingham.

Check This Out: Eternal Road

Today on the blog I’m happy to have the one and only John Howell here to talk about his latest novel, Eternal Road. It was published on August 23. Go here to read a synopsis of the book. Now, give it up for John!

  

John: Thank you so much for having me on your blog today, Linda. I certainly appreciate being here with you.

El Space: My pleasure, John. Four quick facts about yourself?
John: 1. I write every day.
2. I’ll be 80 years old in the spring.
3. I am a pantster and do not outline my work.
4. When I begin a novel, I write the last three lines and then go back and write to that conclusion.

El Space: Groovy! What inspired you to write this book? I can’t help thinking of a film from 1978 called Heaven Can Wait. The premise of that film is nothing like your book. But the life-after-death aspect of your book made me think of it.
John: I wanted to do a historical fiction novel. While I was doing the research, I wrote a short story that started with a couple hitchhiking, and then as the characters came alive, it went in a different direction. Sam, the female protagonist, is reminiscent of a childhood friend who moved away. James, the male protagonist, exhibits the feelings I had as a boy when I lost my childhood friend. She did eventually die when we were both 30. The story is pretty much a way of coming to grips with that double loss so many years ago.

El Space: I have to ask if there is a story behind the use of a 1956 Oldsmobile. Please shed light on that.
John: When I was in high school, a neighbor had a 1656 Oldsmobile identical to the car on the cover. I used to wash and wax that car and fell in love with it. I wanted to honor those memories somehow, so the vehicle is in the story as a tool for Sam and James.

El Space: Time travel also is an aspect of the story. What are some of your favorite time travel stories?
John: I’ve read and seen so many, but I have to say The Time Machine by H.G. Wells is my favorite. Another one was on The Twilight Zone, where a successful guy went back in time to start over for the thrill of building an empire all over again. He went back to the time before the automobile and tried to get people to help him make one. Of course, no one had the skills, so his trip (and deal with the devil) is a waste.

    

El Space: C. S. Lewis once mentioned,

All my seven Narnian books . . . began with seeing pictures in my head. At first, they were not a story, just pictures. The Lion [The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe] all began with a picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood.

When you think of developing a story, which comes first for you—images in your head? The characters? The plot?
John: This is like asking a golfer if they inhale or exhale before their swing. Let me think a moment. I think my stories come about as a result of the images in my head first. These images can be relatively sparse and only a partial picture of what will become the full story. After the images, I then concentrate on the characters. The characters guide the story, and as they develop, they have a hand in developing the plot. Many times, the characters will create plot points by merely acting the way they usually would behave. In Eternal Road, a massive scene develops in the basement of a house due to following the instincts of the two characters. They are in the place and want to look in the basement. I had not planned to have them discover something there until one character all of a sudden said, “I wonder what we will find in the basement.”

El Space: What genre would you love to tackle that you haven’t yet?
John: I would love to write a pure Science Fiction book. I think it would be fun to create a futuristic world complete with political and social infrastructure. At this point, I’m not sure if it would be a thriller type of Sci-fi story or not. I do think the characters would have to be from Earth and on a mission of some sort. I would hope the mission would be one that, if accomplished, the Earth would be better off. Maybe something like word has been received that the inhabitants of a nearby system have discovered the cure for Cancer. The mission would be to go to a planet and bring back the cure. Of course, it would not be all that easy. Maybe the therapy only works on those who carry the DNA of ancient space travelers who visited the Earth many centuries ago. Everyone else who gets vaccinated for the disease dies. Well, I guess it would be a thriller after all.

El Space: Wow that sounds great! Hope you write that book someday. In the meantime, what will you work on next?
John: I had not intended to extend Eternal Road into a series. There have been a couple of reviewers who flatly state that it should be a series. I was going to get to work on a long-awaited story of one of the characters in my John Cannon Trilogy. His name is Ned Tranes, and he is the police chief of Port Aransas, Texas. Now I think Ned’s story is going to wait another year. He is very patient since he has been waiting for three years already. The last encounter we had, Ned’s wife, was taken hostage by a band working for the drug cartel. You know nothing good can come from that. Well, let’s hope they treat his wife nicely until we can get back to set her free.

 

El Space: Oh dear.
John: So I think I will jump in and write book two of Eternal Road.

Good idea! Thank you, John, for hanging out with me.

Looking for John? Check his blog, Facebook, Goodreads, Amazon.

Looking for Eternal Road? Click here!

One of you will find a copy of Eternal Road on your device or in your mailbox. Comment below to be entered in the drawing. Winner to be announced on September 30.

Other books by John:

 

Author photo and Eternal Road book cover courtesy of John Howell. Eternal Road book cover by Roseanna White Designs. Other book covers from Goodreads. Twilight Zone logo from Bloody Disgusting. Heaven Can Wait movie poster from RogerEbert.com.Sci-fi image from wallpaperup.com.

Check This Out: The Edge of Anything

With me on the blog today is another of my awesome Secret Gardener classmates from VCFA: Nora Shalaway Carpenter. You might remember her from this post. She’s here to talk about her young adult novel, The Edge of Anything, which debuted on March 24. It was published by Running Press Teens/Hachette Book Group. Click here for the synopsis.

  

Nora is represented by Victoria Arms Wells of Wells Arms Literary in association with HG Literary. Now let’s talk to Nora!

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Nora: 1. My favorite food is watermelon.
2. I am a certified yoga teacher.
3. My favorite imaginary creature is a phoenix.
4. My hair is often blue.

 

El Space: The Edge of Anything is very powerful and moving. How did it come to be? What came first—the characters or the plot?
Nora: Thank you so much, Linda. I’m glad you enjoyed it. The characters definitely came first. I’ve always wanted to write a volleyball character because I played volleyball growing up and it was a huge part of my identity. However, I never found any books about teen volleyball players while I was growing up, and I wanted to change that. That’s how Sage got her start.

Len evolved because I wanted to write a character who was unknowingly suffering a mental health crisis. This happened to me in early adulthood and it was the most horrific thing I’ve ever experienced. I had no idea what was happening, and even though I had a supportive spouse and good health insurance, we had an incredibly tough time not only figuring out what was happening, but then finding the right care. I remember thinking I was going to die. I also remember feeling so incredibly alone, like no one else had ever experienced anything like what I was going through. I later found out that wasn’t true, of course, but there’s so much stigma and misinformation about mental health conditions—and the people who suffer from them—that many people don’t talk about it. I wanted to open a conversation. The Edge of Anything is the book I wish I’d had during that awful time in my life, a time when I doubted if things could ever get better. I wanted to create a book that showed a character struggling authentically and that depicted the hidden internal battles a person goes through daily. Most importantly—I wanted to show that Len—like all real people struggling with mental health—is so much more than this condition that is terrorizing her brain. She is a regular person, worthy of love and respect and dignity.

El Space: What were the challenges of bringing personal issues to light?
Nora: I talk about this a bit in the author’s note, but the biggest challenge was dealing with any lingering shame I had about my own experience with severe OCD. Over the years, I found that the more I talked about having OCD, the more people connected with me about it and offered their own experiences, and the less shame I felt. Still, writing a book is a whole different level of opening up. But I wanted to. Communication can be life saving when it comes to mental health conditions, and if my story could help someone, then I wanted it out there. It’s also important to note, though, that The Edge of Anything is not autobiographical. I used my own emotional experiences to inform Len’s, but the story is fictional.

El Space: Why was the setting important to you?
Nora: Place always plays a big role in my stories. A number of important scenes in The Edge of Anything take place in the forest surrounding the Blue Ridge Parkway, so it was super important that the book be set somewhere where the characters had easy access to such a place. There are also hiking scenes, and as I live in the North Carolina mountains, I drew on my own experiences hiking the area.

Blue Ridge Parkway

El Space: I love the emphasis on female friendship. Please tell us why that was valuable to you.
Nora: I’ve always been fascinated with deep friendships—why they form and how they last. Female friendships have been incredibly important in my own life, and so I wanted to really dig into what puts one of these life-changing friendships on a different level than an average friendship. How is that bond established?

El Space: As you wrote your novel, what craft advice, if any, helped you along the way?
Nora: I struggle with perfectionism, which is basically the antidote to productive writing, so while writing The Edge of Anything I adhered to the mantra “write shitty.” It might sound silly, but my writing flows much better if I have permission to write badly at first. I even have a sticky note on my laptop that literally says, Write shitty, Nora. It makes me laugh, and it also makes writing much more manageable for me. I want my work to end up beautiful and cohesive, of course, but if you set out trying to write a finished product from scratch, you’re setting yourself up to fail.

First drafts are always bad, unless you’re the kind of writer that revises while you write, which can take a long time. But when I see my note to myself, I relax, because the pressure is off. I know I can write shitty, and so the words start flowing. Then, after I get the story out on the page, I can go back and see what themes my unconscious has put into the book, and start to tease those out. I can revise and re-vision and make the words beautiful. That mantra got me through drafting the book, and I recommend it to writers constantly. One of the biggest challenges for many writers, I think, is getting to the end of a draft when you know there are lots of things you want to fix in the beginning and middle. Of course there are and there’s time for that. But you have to get to the end so you can see the whole picture.

El Space: Did you read YA books growing up? How do you feel being part of the community of YA authors now?
Nora: This is an interesting question because there weren’t that many books designated as YA when I was growing up. At least I didn’t know they had that designation if they did. I feel like I jumped pretty quickly from reading the Berenstain Bears to middle grades like Tuck Everlasting and Bridge to Terabithia and then Lord of the Flies and Fahrenheit 451. I do remember reading The Catcher in the Rye and freaking loving it. In fact, I’m a little afraid to reread it as an adult because I’m worried I won’t enjoy it as much. It’s truly a life-long dream come true to be part of the author community now.

El Space: What inspires you as you write?
Nora: Other books and nature. Whenever I’m feeling creatively stifled, I always start reading a ton and I spend as much time as I can outside and away from my phone and social media. For me, there is nothing like soaking up great books and reconnecting with the earth to get those creative juices flowing.

El Space: What will you work on next?
Nora: I’m currently writing another contemporary YA. This one is set is rural West Virginia. But my next book is a mixed genre anthology called Rural Voices: 15 authors Challenge Stereotypes of Small-Town America, out October 13, 2020 from Candlewick Press.

El Space: Thanks, Nora, for being my guest!
Nora: Thanks so much for having me on the blog, Linda!

Looking for Nora? Click below:

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Looking for The Edge of Anything? Check out your local bookstore, Amazon, Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe. Barnes and Noble, or Indiebound.

One of you will receive a copy of Nora’s novel in your very own mailbox. Just comment below! Winner to be revealed next week sometime.

 

In these days of social distancing, the book club had to meet on Zoom. But they were on the same page when both said they wished the characters in The Edge of Anything were friends of theirs.

The Edge of Anything book cover and author photo courtesy of the author. Chip Bryan took the photo. Cover illustration: Fabio Consoli. Cover design by Frances J. Soo Ping Chow. Other book covers from Goodreads. Volleyball from cliparts.co. Blue Ridge Parkway map from blueridgeparkway.org. Watermelon image from download.com. Yoga clipart from 101clipart.com. Other photos by L. Marie.

Easter Eggs or Seven Years A-Bloggin’

Though I posted the above photo, this post is about what’s described in the quote below from Wikipedia. Check this out:

While the term Easter egg has been used to mean a hidden object for some time, in reference to an Easter egg hunt, it has come to be more commonly used to mean a message, image, or feature hidden in a video game, movie, or other, usually electronic, medium.

So I really mean images like the one below from Star Wars: The Force Awakens with Boba Fett from Return of the Jedi superimposed on it, which points out an Easter egg. You have to check out WatchMojo’s website or YouTube channel for the explanation. Easter Eggs are for fans who eagerly pour over scenes from movies, hoping to find characters, objects like spaceships or flags, dialogue, or even sound effects from other movies, TV shows, graphic novels, video games, etc. Finding a sly reference to another work can be as satisfying as finding Waldo in a crowded scene—something that’s very relaxing to people like me who are uptight and prone to road rage. (Ah, the life of an irate driver.)

Nowadays, it’s not enough that filmmakers or television producers provide an epic ending to a film or show. Many go the extra mile to entertain fans by hiding Easter eggs. Perhaps they feel they have to keep up with the Joneses by including Easter eggs, since so many other films and TV shows do so.

Easter eggs might seem like an odd topic for a blog post. But as someone who has participated in many an Easter egg hunt, hiding eggs in friends’ backyards over the years, I guess you can say I’ve earned the right to talk about them.

Do you look for Easter eggs in movies? What are your favorites?

P.S. Because this is my seventh blogoversary (the actual date was February 19), throughout this post I have included seven Easter eggs from my first seven blog posts. Big hint: I used phrases from blog post titles, rather than pictures. You’ll have to go alllllllllll the way back to the 2013 posts to see which titles I mean. I was so tempted to do thirteen for 2013—the year I started. Seven will have to do. Happy hunting!

Kitty desperately wanted to talk over the Easter eggs she saw in a movie. She asked Henry, “Did you find the Easter eggs?” When Henry nodded to an empty bucket, before he could open his mouth to say anything, Kitty added, “No. Don’t speak.” Obviously, he didn’t have a clue what she meant.

Easter eggs from somewhere on Pinterest. Star Wars image from WatchMojo.com. Other photo by L. Marie.

Lemons

Have you ever bitten into a lemon? I did once, when I was a kid. Note the word once. I quickly realized that some fruit have a taste other than sweet.

Now, I realize that many people love to eat lemons. (My mother for instance.) And this article talks about the benefits of eating lemons: https://healthyeating.sfgate.com/benefit-eating-whole-fresh-lemons-4390.html

Yet I prefer my lemons paired with other things: sugar and water in lemonade; sugar, water, and tea for iced tea; or sugar, eggs, flour, and other ingredients in lemon meringue pie or lemon bars. Even the lemon candy I like is of the sweet and sour variety.

    

It’s much the same with stories. I like a mixture of sweet and sour. Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien; Sabriel by Garth Nix; Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016 movie; the novelization was written by Alexander Freed). An author who writes this kind of story has to strike the right balance between hope and hopelessness.

   

Usually I love the point in the story where things are at their worst, and you don’t think good can come out of it—but then it does, sometimes at a high cost. A thoroughly satisfying conclusion is a great reward for that kind of tension.

I also think of lemons because the sourness of life sucks sometimes. I can’t help putting it that baldly. (Yes, baldly.) Jobs are lost. People you love face health issues or are in emotional pain. These moments are the “shut the book, Dad” moments Samwise Gamgee talked about in Lord of the Rings—the moments when you’re not sure everything will turn out right. I’m in that kind of moment right now. Maybe one day, I’ll provide the full details. But I wanted to write about it in the moment—when a happy ending isn’t a guarantee—because often you hear stories of triumph after the fact, after the darkness has passed and the “sun shines all the clearer”—another quote given to Samwise, this time in The Two Towers:

I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you.

These words gives me hope when life hands out lemons. May they enable you to keep pressing on in a sour/dark time of your own.

Now I’m thinking of some words Galadriel spoke in Fellowship of the Ring:

May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out.

Lemon image from freepik. Lemon meringue pie image from Pillsbury. Lemonhead image from Target. Quote from Two Towers is from the script by Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair, and Fran Walsh © 2002. Sean Astin as Samwise Gamgee image from Cinema Blend. Words of Galadriel and others are by J. R. R. Tolkien.

Hand Sewn/Sown

When I was a kid, my mother taught me to sew by hand. Though we didn’t own a sewing machine, she said I needed to learn the basics, like sewing on a button or sewing a hem on pants or a skirt. So I learned two basic stitches—the running stitch and the whip stitch. Later I bought this book, which lists other stitches. (This article lists some of the stitches I learned.)

Sewing anything by hand takes time and patience, especially if the goal for whatever you’re working on is that it be neat and durable. One day, however, I’d like to learn to use a sewing machine. (My sister-in-law has one.) That would certainly save time.

  

Stitches on felt

As I pen this post about hand sewing, I can’t help thinking of how I used to write everything—stories, poems, and even novel drafts—on legal pads or notebook paper. But when I acquired one computer after another, I stopped writing most things by hand, with the exception of some letters and some journal entries. (Yes, I still write letters. Not a ton, but a few in a month.)

The thing is, I type faster than I write by hand, which is why I turned to the keyboard many years ago. I reasoned, why not cut out the middle man by writing on the computer, rather than writing on paper and then having to type my handwritten text. But the words I’ve sown by hand on paper seem to have more depth. When I take time to physically write, I wind up writing more.

At first I thought that was just my perception. But an online article “Your First Book: Handwriting vs. Typing. How to Write It?” by Zoe Nixon states

Depending on the individual, some people confess that writing by hand allows their creative minds to work easier than when they type.

Here is yet another article on the subject: https://www.simonandschuster.com/getliterary/benefits-writing-longhand-versus-computer/

And another: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/nov/03/creative-writing-better-pen-longhand

While I doubt that I’ll return to writing a whole novel by hand, I know the value of writing tricky scenes by hand. As one of the above articles suggested, I often doodle as I write. If I have multiple characters to maneuver in a scene, drawing their positions on paper (standing or sitting? punching first or dodging?) helps me write about them more effectively. This tactic also helps me discern if a scene is too overcrowded and in need of adjustment.

What about you? Do you first write by hand or do you enter your text on a computer first? Let me know in the comments!

Though her chicken is excited at having written her first novel, Pinkie Pie thinks it needs a revision. All of the dialogue consists of only one word, “Cluck.”

Computer from somewhere on the internet. Other photos by L. Marie.Pinkie Pie, computer, and chicken are from the My Little Pony Equestria Girls Minis Pinkie Pie Slumber Party Bedroom Set by My Little Pony.