Artistically Sincere

Do you get Brain Pickings? I had to pause after typing that question, since it conjures up differing images, some grosser than others. By Brain Pickings, I mean this newsletter produced by Maria Popova.

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An article on André Gide, a French author, inspired this post. I can’t say I’m familiar with Gide’s work, though he won the Nobel Prize in 1947. I learned through the article that was an avid journaler. What struck a chord with me was Gide’s study of “the paradox of sincerity, the difference between being and appearing, and the monumental question of what it really means to be oneself.”

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I immediately thought of the word authenticity—keeping it real. Here’s the definition that pops up when you Google sincere.

sin•cere
sinˈsir/
adjective
free from pretense or deceit; proceeding from genuine feelings.
“they offer their sincere thanks to Paul” . . .
• (of a person) saying what they genuinely feel or believe; not dishonest or hypocritical.

I can’t help thinking of reality TV shows that purport to show life as it really happens for some. Sorry. I’m skeptical of the sincerity of many of those shows, since “real life” can be edited to fit a time frame. But how much of “myself” do I present to the public? At home, I might leave dirty socks on the floor. In public I often present the “self” that’s all part of putting my best foot forward. In other words, the “edited” me that tries to fit in to society. Sometimes that means I don’t say what I genuinely feel if hurting someone will result. (Like, “Wow, that tie your wife gave you is hideous.”)

184698To aid in the discussion of sincerity, Popova used quotes from Gide’s book, The Journals of André Gide. A quote that really stuck out to me was this:

When one has begun to write, the hardest thing is to be sincere. Essential to mull over that idea and to define artistic sincerity.

I mulled that over in regard to my current WIP—a middle grade contemporary fantasy novel. How much of my writing, I wondered, is really sincere or a sincere desire to cater to the ever-shifting market? Is it possible to be both?

I’m reminded of the Twilight craze some years ago and how in 2010 or so I thought to jump on the bandwagon by writing a vampire novel. For the life of me, I can’t remember the name of that story or where it is. Maybe it’s just as well. I couldn’t get past four pages of that manuscript. The main character was a college student watching a vampire movie on television with her best friend whom she secretly liked, but who liked some other girl. Aside from that boring beginning, I had no clue what she wanted (besides that guy) or how I would bring something new to the table in regard to vampires. So I quickly abandoned that story.

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Three years ago, one of my grad school advisors suggested that I write a middle grade story. Many authors were turning out middle grade manuscripts and agents were taking notice. I tried to take her advice, but couldn’t come up with a manuscript beyond one involving a character I barely knew and a vague idea I’ve since abandoned. The two pages I wrote felt too much like the Twilight-esque story—me trying to write a story without having a sincere passion for it. I couldn’t go on with it. Instead, I completed the two young adult novels and sent both out on querying rounds to agents. Couldn’t get a nibble on one. The jury’s still out on the second.

While working on a sequel to my second young adult novel, an idea for a middle grade novel came to me that felt sincere. How do I know it is? Because when the main character and her conflict came to mind, I sat down and quickly wrote the first scene without a struggle. I wanted to know more about her and how she would react to conflict. I also had a sense of her family dynamic, which enabled me to write the next scene and the next. Before I knew it, I had written two chapters and enjoyed the process.

I recently searched my computer and found three other attempts at a middle grade novel that went nowhere. I didn’t even remember one of them.

Artistic sincerity means feeling the story bone deep—having a sense of the characters and their quirks—something I lacked with my other attempts. What does sincerity mean for you and your writing? How do you know when you’re being artistically sincere?

Popova, Maria. “André Gide on Sincerity, Being vs. Appearing, and What It Really Means to Be Yourself.” Brain Pickings RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Mar. 2015.

André Gide photo from blogdejoaquinrabassa.blogspot.com. Brain Pickings logo from traveler.es.

Like a Movie?

I’ll get to who won Kinda Like Brothers by the awe-inspiring Coe Booth in just a minute. But first, you know me. I have to share what’s on my mind.

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Three years ago, I wrote a fight scene and submitted it to one of my grad school advisors, thinking that it was pretty good. She totally ripped into it. Her problem with it had to do with cause and effect. If Adam punches Claude (cause), what is the effect of that punch? If the effect is Claude falling against Jared, why didn’t I state this? Why did I instead cut to Sam throwing a knife, when I started the fight talking about Adam and what he’s doing to Claude? And where is Adam positioned by the way? Where is Claude? I didn’t provide enough information to make the fight understandable. 

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Though I thought I adequately conveyed the scene I saw in my head, I left out key steps to help a reader track the action. I’ve begun to think of that experience as “movie shortcut thinking.”

In a movie, we can see a ton of action in a wide shot. I can’t help thinking of a scene from The Return of the King (2003, directed by Peter Jackson), specifically, the Battle of the Pelennor Fields where thousands of characters fight. (Um, my fight scenes are not on such an epic scale by the way.) A camera can easily pan or zoom in quickly to show us key elements in a scene. Also, a director might make the decision to fade to another scene altogether in the blink of an eye.

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The Battle of the Pelennor Fields

We’re not bothered by the switch in scenes, because the eye can process a lot of images quickly. We’re getting used to seeing films like The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012, directed by Peter Jackson), which was filmed at 48 FPS (frames per second). But the mind’s eye is different. In a book, a reader’s imagination requires more cues to track the action. While writing my fight scene, I had taken too many shortcuts, as if I were a camera panning across a landscape. The scene I presented to my advisor needed more work than I’d originally thought to make it effective. Every action needed a reaction. Newton’s third law at work.

According to Newton, whenever objects A and B interact with each other, they exert forces upon each other. . . . For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

fall_2013_sketcheskey_3I needed to show the pertinent actions and reactions in this fight. Doing so doesn’t mean spelling out every microbe (which would be boring) and spoon-feeding a reader (which would be condescending). It simply means making the action clear and compelling. That required slowing down and writing the fight step by step.

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But I didn’t understand all of this when my advisor ripped into my scene. Understanding dawned finally this year when I was asked for my opinion about a manuscript written by the relative of a friend of mine. I had trouble tracking the action in—you guessed it—a fight scene. I didn’t understand who was fighting whom or which actions caused the reactions described. Now that I had walked a mile in my advisor’s shoes, I understood her frustration with my scene. Some lessons take years to sink in, I guess. The gist of the lesson: when it comes to writing, a shortcut is not a good thing.

Now, the moment you’ve been waiting for: the announcement of the winner of Kinda Like Brothers by Coe Booth.

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That person is . . .

. . . Is . . .

. . . Is . . .

. . . Is . . .

Sharon Van Zandt!

Congratulations, Sharon! Please confirm below. Let me know if you want a hardcover or eBook.

Battle of Pelennor Fields image from comicvine.com. Step 1 from kirbasinstitute.com. Step 2 image from addictionblog.org. Action/reaction image from wired.com. Fight scene image from forgotmylines.com. Mind image from bubblejam.net.

Check This Out: Kinda Like Brothers

Over the past year, I’ve had the pleasure of talking with wonderful authors. That’s definitely the case today as I talk with the marvelous Coe Booth, who today will discuss her latest book, a wonderful middle grade novel (her first)—Kinda Like Brothers, published by Scholastic Press.

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Coe is represented by Jodi Reamer at Writers House. Here is a synopsis of Kinda Like Brothers:

Jarrett doesn’t trust Kevon. But he’s got to share a room with him anyway.

It was one thing when Jarrett’s mom took care of foster babies who needed help. But this time it’s different. This time the baby who needs help has an older brother—a kid Jarrett’s age named Kevon.

Everyone thinks Jarrett and Kevon should be friends—but that’s not gonna happen. Not when Kevon’s acting like he’s better than Jarrett—and not when Jarrett finds out Kevon’s keeping some major secrets.

Jarrett doesn’t think it’s fair that he has to share his room, his friends, and his life with some stranger. He’s gotta do something about it—but what?

Cool, huh? Let’s talk to Coe!

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Coe: (1) I’m seriously afraid of moths (and all kinds of creepy flying bugs!) (2) I’m a vegetarian, but I enjoy letting my characters eat meat. (3) I have a somewhat unhealthy addiction to fountain pens and pretty notebooks. I have more notebooks than I could possibly use in my lifetime! (4) I go on at least one week-long meditation retreat every year—a silent retreat where reading, writing, and even talking are not allowed.

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El Space: Awesome! You’re well known for young adult novels like (Tyrell, Kendra, Bronxwood). What inspired you to write a middle grade novel?

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Coe: When I was really young, I hated reading. I loved writing my own stories, but I didn’t like reading books because I couldn’t relate to any of them. That all changed in fourth grade when my teacher gave me a copy of one of Judy Blume’s novels and I discovered that books could actually be fun. Ever since then, I recognized the power that middle grade books can have, and I’ve always wanted to write for that age group. My hope is that I can write something that can grab kids who don’t like to read and possibly change the way they think about books, too.

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El Space: Kids in blended families will relate to Jarrett and Kevon. How has your background prepared you to write their story?
Coe: Several years ago, I worked as a child protective caseworker, investigating child abuse cases. Sometimes I would have to remove kids from their homes and place them in foster care. Working with foster families is what sparked the idea for Kinda Like Brothers. I was always curious what being a foster family was like for the biological children in the home, the ones who had to adapt to kids coming and going from their lives over and over again. Jarrett is one of those kids. He’s used to the foster babies because his mom has been taking them in ever since he can remember. But when Mom takes in Kevon, who is a year older than Jarrett, this is a little more than he can handle!

El Space: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book?
Coe: With all my books, I struggle the most with characterization and voice. This book was no exception. I spent so much time writing and writing, and then I got to the point where I felt like I knew who Jarrett was and what he sounded like. Unfortunately, everything I had written up to that point wasn’t really the story I wanted to tell, so I ended up deleting the whole thing and starting all over again. That was really, really hard. But in the end I’m glad I let go of what wasn’t working so I could make room for what was.

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El Space: What do you hope readers will take away after reading your book?
Coe: There are so many foster families, and so many kids living in foster care. I hope I’m giving readers a little insight into a world they may not have thought about. But more importantly, of course, I hope readers fall in love with Jarrett and Kevon, and enjoy the story of how these two boys become (kinda like) brothers!

El Space: You’re on the faculty at VCFA. Yay! You usually have to give advice to students. Lately many people have addressed the need for more diversity in books. What advice do you have for aspiring writers on this topic?
Coe: Diversity is one of those things that’s easier said than done. Achieving diversity in the world of children’s books is a complex matter. It is so challenging getting these books written, published, and placed into the hands of children, and attention needs to be placed on each of these stages. As writers, we don’t have to force diversity into our novels. All we can do is make sure our writing reflects the world in its entirety and diversity would be accomplished in a natural way.

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El Space: What’s some of the best advice you’ve received about writing?
Coe: You don’t have to know where you’re going to get started. Just sit down and write.

El Space: What are you working on now?
Coe: Right now, I’m working on another YA novel. I’m still in the thinking-on-paper stage, so I’m not really sure what it’s about yet, but it’s fun discovering what this novel wants to be.

Coe, thanks so much for stopping by! You’re welcome anytime! And thanks to everyone else who took time out to join us. I’m giving away a copy of Kinda Like Brothers. Anyone who comments will be entered in the drawing. Winner to be announced Wednesday, October 8.

Can’t wait for that? If you have to have Kinda Like Brothers right now, you can find it here:

Amazon
Barnes and Noble
Indiebound
Powell’s

Looking for Coe? Check out her website and Twitter.

Flags image from diversity.uno.edu. Judy Blume cover from Goodreads. Fountain pen from eBay.

Check This Out: All Night

Welcome to the blog. imagecumyn2Today, it is my privilege to talk with the awesome Alan Cumyn, one of the faculty members at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and an award-winning novelist. Alan has written eleven novels for a variety of ages. He’s won awards like the Ottawa Book Award and Mr. Christie’s Book Award for children’s literature, and has been short listed for awards like the Giller Prize, the Trillium Award, and many others. Cool, huh?

He’s here to talk about his latest novel, All Night. I’ll be giving away three copies of it. But before I get to that, let’s talk to Alan, shall we?

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El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
14273Alan: (1) I have studied and practiced tai chi, a slow-motion Chinese martial art and moving meditation, for nearly 30 years. It starts my day, helps me keep my focus when a lot is going on. (2) I live four blocks from my old high school in Ottawa, Canada, but have also lived in many other places, including China and Indonesia. (3) When I was 24, I did a Master of Creative Writing under Alistair MacLeod, who would go on to win one of the world’s richest literary prizes for his novel No Great Mischief. (4) I am surrounded by writers, actors, and artists. My wife, Suzanne Evans, is a nonfiction writer particularly interested in women and war. My older brother, Richard, writes mainly short stories; my younger brother Steve is a professional actor, as is my daughter, Gwen; and both my mother, Suzanne, and my other daughter, Anna, are talented painters.

El Space: Your latest book, All Night, was written as a literacy project. How did that come about?
944171Alan: My eldest daughter, Gwen Cumyn, graduated from theater school a few years ago into an uncertain life as an actor. Her partner, Colin Munch, is an improv comedian. As a graduation gift I decided to write a one-act play about a similar couple struggling through a difficult night after a dear friend has suddenly died. The play is a romantic comedy showing the couple coming to grips with economic realities, the limitations of dreams, and the power of their own love. I got to spend a week in Toronto workshopping the play with Gwen and Colin in the lead roles, directed by Kat Sandler, a talented young director. We are still figuring out the best way to present this material to audiences. In the meantime, I was contacted by Laurel Boone, who edited my first novel in 1993, Waiting for Li Ming, which I wrote after spending a year teaching in China. Laurel was editing a series of novellas called Good Reads in which prominent authors were asked to write short, plain-language novels for adults who are learning to read. I decided to adapt the play, and that’s how the book was born.

El Space: You’ve written books for children, teens, and adults. What are the challenges in toggling between the age levels?
image002Alan: I started my career as very much an adult writer, and only turned to writing for younger audiences after having my own kids and being reintroduced to the wonders of children’s literature. Some of my novels for adults are dark and intense, and I literally needed a break—I needed to work on something light and funny. That’s how The Secret Life of Owen Skye came about—as a series of stories written for my own daughters as Christmas or birthday presents, and later adapted into linked stories for publication. I’m interested in a lot of different issues and material—there’s so much in life to write about! So I try not to repeat myself in books, and I really like the feeling of switching gears, of moving from one type of book to something quite different. So in choosing which project to work on next, I think of my own energy level and the next sort of challenge I want to take on.

1190526El Space: I read this article on Guy Gavriel Kay, who talked about the theme of exile in his books. What theme, if any, can you see running through your novels?
Alan: In many ways my novels are all over the map. I have some about human rights (Man of Bone and Burridge Unbound), about war (The Sojourn, The Famished Lover), one on madness (Losing It), some coming-of-age novels (Tilt, Between Families and the Sky). But I am most interested in how people form bonds, in what love does to us and how we find it and try to keep it. So my Owen Skye trilogy (including also After Sylvia and Dear Sylvia) traces an epic love story between Owen and Sylvia Tull, the little girl who sits across the classroom from him. She is so beautiful he can hardly look at her, but she breaks his heart when she moves away. Often, when I read an Owen story in a classroom, I talk about how we all have to deal with love in our lives, no matter what age and stage. As Paul Simon sings [in “Oh, Marion“], “The only time that love is an easy game is when two other people are playing it.”

El Space: In two lectures at VCFA, you quoted some advice from one of your writing professors about remembering the “cheese sandwich” in regard to story—how a reader might walk away from a story if she’s not captivated. In both lectures you talked about connection. How can a writer aid a reader’s connection to his/her story?
grilledcheeseAlan: My writing professor, Alistair MacLeod, an irrepressible storyteller, often used to round out his advice to writers by saying, “If you don’t do it right, if you don’t nail the reader to the page, then she will put down your book, wander into the kitchen and make herself a cheese sandwich . . . and never come back!” The idea is that readers are so easily distracted that even processed cheese food will be too much competition for writing that doesn’t quite work. I like fiction that works in all the major ways—that is about interesting people who find themselves in odd and trying situations, and are honestly seeking a way through. We do need to connect to those characters, to care about them, and readers do need to feel like they really are in partnership with the author—it is “their” book, too. And that often means not explaining everything, leaving lots of room for the reader’s imagination.

El Space: You’re off to be a writer-in-residence at Mount Royal University in Calgary and elsewhere. For me, writer-in-residence always conjures up the image of a writer sitting in an office with a window and everyone staring at him or her and murmuring, “He’s/She’s writing” in an awed voice. But what are the responsibilities of being a writer-in-residence?
Alan: The responsibilities of a writer-in-residence can vary greatly depending on the setup. At Mount Royal University in Calgary I will be spending a fair amount of time in classrooms speaking with creative writing students and in office time meeting students and other writers from the university one-on-one. I will only be there for a week, and I’m not expecting to get much of my own writing done! But I will be at Berton House in Dawson City, Yukon, for three months—from April through June 2014. As writer-in-residence my only official duties will be to give a public reading in Dawson, and another in Whitehorse. I expect I will have lots of other public interactions, both official and unofficial, but mainly the idea is that I have time, money, and a space to do my own writing away from my regular life. How heavenly!

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El Space: What are you working on now?
Alan: I am working on a new young adult novel that I don’t talk about publicly yet, but hopefully soon.

Thanks, Alan! I can truly say you’re a gentleman and a scholar. 😀

Thanks to all who stopped by. You can find All Night at the following places:

Amazon
Barnes and Noble

Looking for Alan? You can find him at his website, Facebook, and Twitter. But three of you will win a Kindle version of All Night. Just comment below! Winners to be announced on Friday, February 7.

Cheese sandwich image from simplerecipes.net. Book covers from Alan’s website and Goodreads. Photo of Alan is from his website.

A Writer’s Process (12a)

Today, I’m talking with another great classmate of mine, Nora Carpenter. She’s here today and tomorrow to talk about her young adult novel, A Beautiful Kind of Crazy. And no, the novel isn’t about me. But thanks for thinking of me. We’ll also discuss some trends in young adult fiction. I’ve got my coffee in front of me, so let’s get started.

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El Space: Welcome, Nora. Please share four quick facts about yourself.
2008-10-20_old-bathroom-door-keyNora: I graduated from VCFA’s Writing for Children and Young Adults master’s program in July 2012—a proud member of the amazingly talented Secret Gardeners! I am Associate Editor for Wonderful West Virginia magazine; I’m a certified yoga teacher; I live in Asheville, NC; and I have a wonderful husband, son, and two mischievous dogs, Holmes and Watson. Sorry . . . that’s five facts. 🙂

El Space: That’s quite all right. The more the merrier, I always say. 🙂 What inspired you to write A Beautiful Kind of Crazy?
Nora: The initial nugget of inspiration came to me because of some struggles that some of my friends were going through, things for which there were no definitive answers. I started thinking about some hard topics, like family goals versus individual goals, loyalty, and betrayal, and how a teenager might handle being pulled in different directions by different people she loved. From there, the character of Cay Zeller was born. The novel explores deep family bonds, prejudice, and what it takes to heal a cherished bond severed by betrayal. And her story turned into something I didn’t expect, which was nice.

El Space: Cool! I love when a story evolves. What authors inspire you?
62151Nora: Gosh. So many! Actually, this is an interesting question for me, because I find most often that books inspire me. That is to say, I fall in love with certain stories and characters. There are no authors about whom I can say I love every single thing they’ve ever written, but there are definitely books that make me think, Wow. This is absolutely incredibly done. I hope my stories impact readers the way this story has impacted me.

250924So, let’s see . . . some inspirational books/authors for me are: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Damage by A.M. Jenkins, The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron, and the Make Lemonade trilogy by Virginia Euwer Wolff. I could go on all day, because I’d say anyone who writes a story that resonates with me provides inspiration. And I think I learn something from every book I read. What really impresses and inspires me is when authors make regular, everyday characters with regular, relatable problems completely fascinating and engaging.

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Also, I love when authors write notes at the end of novels and talk about how they had to write their book five or six times to get it right. That is inspiring. It reminds me to make sure I give them as many drafts as needed. I think a lot of people think authors just sit down and churn out 300 pages on the first try, and that first draft is published as is. And maybe there are some people who do that. But gosh, writing is an incredibly difficult labor of love, and it can take draft after draft after draft to finally reach the heartbeat of a story and produce something that is vibrant and true.

El Space: What writing advice have you received that changed the way you think about writing?
Nora: In a fabulous lecture, Louise Hawes explained that in order to generate plot, you should constantly ask yourself two questions: “What does my character want?” and “Why does she want it?” I have these questions posted at my desk and they led me to create the plot for A Beautiful Kind of Crazy. It seems obvious now, but it was eye-opening back then to realize that in a great story, plot is inextricably connected to its protagonist. You shouldn’t just be able to change the protagonist and have the exact same story unfold. A different protagonist would have different ways of thinking about the world, and so make different choices, and have different friends, etc., all of which would change the outcome of the novel.

Breakthrough #2: During my second semester at VCFA, I worked with the magnificent Tim Wynne-Jones. He taught me so much about craft, but one of the best lessons I learned was how to make use of dialogue “beats” (pauses in which dialogue is broken by narrative—maybe a few words, maybe a sentence or longer—that make the dialogue feel real). Not only did I learn how to make fictional dialogue more authentic, I also learned how to accentuate important lines of narrative by manipulating the sentence length and structure of what comes immediately before and after.

El Space: What are you working on now?
Nora: I’m so close to finishing the last draft of A Beautiful Kind of Crazy. After that, I’ve got several ideas, but I’ll most likely be starting a novel with a teenage protagonist who suffers from undiagnosed obsessive compulsive disorder. People usually think someone with OCD is just a super-organized neat freak. That person may have OCD tendencies, but the illness is much scarier and life-hindering than that. My character is afraid of touching certain things, can’t stop washing her hands sometimes, etc. I’m also working on some more poems for Wild, Strong, and Free: Interactive Yoga Poems for Kids, my kids’ yoga picture book.

Tomorrow, I’ll continue talking with Nora about her novel and trends in young adult fiction. For now, if you have questions for Nora about her novel, the authors she admires, or about yoga, feel free to comment below. And thanks for stopping by!

Key from eastonclass1.bltnorthants.net. Book covers from Goodreads.

I’m Entitled?

I’ve got two winners to announce, thanks to the Random Number Generator. (I love it so! I could just kiss it!)

1335816The winner of the $15 Amazon gift card to purchase Under the Mermaid Angel by Martha Moore is

Andy of City Jackdaw!

Andy, congratulations! I checked Amazon UK. The book is available! Your card will be in pounds.

NEWCOVER-199x300The winner of the $25 Amazon gift card to purchase Entangled by Amy Rose Capetta and The Color of Rain by Cori McCarthy is

Beatthemtodeathwiththeirownshoes!

Congrats, beatthemtodeathwiththeirownshoes (John). Um, hopefully you can confirm with your email address and whether or not you require Amazon UK as well. (You mentioned having trouble commenting lately.) Please comment below or catch me at lmarie7b(at)gmail(dot)com.

On with the show. . . .

Why the post title? Well, let me start by taking you way back to fifth grade. My good friend Nathaniel had a habit of blurting out in class, “Somebody farted!” Everyone would giggle, while our teacher, Mrs. Nave, frowned and yelled for quiet.

Back then, we had the whoever-smelt-it-dealt-it rule. Meaning, if you called attention to it, you were the culprit. And that was generally true of Nathaniel. Since he was the class clown, he was quick to point the finger at someone else, even when he was the culprit.

The other day I read this post at Lisa Kramer’s blog. You have to read the post to know the issue. I was incensed at the demands some of her students made and even commented that the demands smacked of entitlement.

After that, I couldn’t help noticing my own entitlement issues. If I could readily judge someone else’s issue, I surely have a similar problem. Whoever smelt it, dealt it, right?

Right. Anger is the first sign that I have an attitude of entitlement. I’ve been Princess Pouty lately. (I can’t take credit for that appellation. If you’re a fan of the Avatar series, you know that Zuko was called Prince Pouty in an episode.) In fact, the cat in this photo reminds me of me—the stance and expression, rather than the caption.

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As embarrassing as it is to admit to my faults—my demand for an expected outcome in each situation—I need to own up to them, rather than pull a “Nathaniel” or act Pharisaical as I point the finger at someone else. So here they are in all of their dismal glory.

The blog. If I write a post, I am entitled to readers, especially readers who comment. I’m sighing and hanging my head at this one. It’s all part of the “If you write it, they will come” field of dreams. (Remember that movie?) Two weeks ago, I asked myself, If no one comments or follows this blog, will I still write blog posts? Am I writing them for comments or am I writing them because I want to write them? A good dose of reality was the key. There are so many blogs out there. The fact that anyone chooses to stop by my blog—well, that’s a tiny miracle. But no one owes me a comment, simply because I blather on.
The search for an agent. If I query a manuscript, I’m entitled to an agent’s acceptance or feedback as to why it was not accepted. After all, the world is waiting for this manuscript! Actually, the world is waiting for the next Hobbit movie or the new Plants vs. Zombies videogame. (I know I am!) Yet the anger I feel when I hear “no” or whenever I don’t hear back from an agent points to entitlement. I can hear some veterans of the querying process chuckling and whispering, “Naïve much?” Ha ha! Yeah. I read a comment by an agent at a blog post, which in short stated, “Get over it! Act professional. Learn from the rejection.” Wise words.
The job search. If I apply for a job, I’m entitled to it, especially if I’m qualified or more than qualified for it. Even I can’t help giggling at that attitude, even after growling at employers who passed up my applications.
The left lane. If I’m driving in the left lane, those who drive slower than me should automatically get over and let me go on my merry way. The road rage I frequently indulge in is always a sure sign of the attitude.
Prayer. Whatever I ask for, I should get, especially if I have a good reason for asking. Oh man do I have this bad.

The list goes on and on. Truth hurts sometimes. But the fact that this list took all of two seconds to compile shows that I needed to face the truth and put aside Princess Pouty.

Please don’t think for one minute that I am holding up a mirror for anyone else. The only mirror I’m holding up is compact size. In other words, I usually air my own dirty laundry.

Now, aren’t you glad you stopped by the blog today? Don’t worry. You’re under no obligation to leave a comment. (Well, John and Andy have to, in order to confirm.) I’m tearing up my “titles.” Ya get it? Entitlement? Titles? Guess I’d better add to the list above. (I’m entitled to laughter at my bad puns.)

Cat from LOL Cats.

A Writer’s Process (10)

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Friends often lead to new friends. I’ve said that before in a post. Here on the blog with me is Martha Moore—author extraordinaire. I met Martha through a friend, Sharon Van Zandt. Martha is the author of Under the Mermaid Angel, Matchit, and Angels on the Roof.

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At the end of the post, I’ll announce a special giveaway. For now, let’s welcome Martha to the blog.

El Space: Welcome, Martha. And now, please share four quick facts about yourself.
Martha: When I was four, I found it exciting that an old tin door pressed into the grass could open a buried room protected from the Texas hot sun. I could follow my grandmother into this damp, chilly underworld and retrieve my favorite treats: watermelon pickles and sweet pickled peaches. When I was five, I met my first children’s author, Edna Walker Chandler, when she talked to my grandmother’s third grade classroom. I could not believe that this ordinary woman wearing a house dress and black shoes, had such stories buried inside her.

p-LighthouseWhen I was ten, I looked out our kitchen window one early morning and saw that during the middle of the night, my father had filled the backyard with boats, old peeling paint kinds of boats, including a wooden houseboat, or what seemed like a small house, to me. My mother cried at my father’s new venture, but my sister and I saw a playground. As a teen, I loved exploring caves dug into the rock at Palo Duro Canyon, a beautiful canyon that magically opens up in the flat stretch of land and sky near Canyon, Texas. Today, I still enjoy the magic of the unexpected. Recently, a giant sunflower miraculously sprung up in the midst of the zucchini plants in my backyard garden.

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El Space: Great stories! So what inspired you to write Under the Mermaid Angel?
Martha: When I was about eleven, the woman next door became my friend. My mother did not like her. She was too flamboyant and wild. Sometimes she drank beer and she stood at the ironing board ironing playing loud music on the radio. I was amazed that she even ironed her panties. She laughed a lot and she was funny. I loved her. Many years later, I began writing stories, or I suppose scenes, with someone like this woman and a thirteen-year-old girl named Jesse. At the same time, I was intrigued by a mystery at the junior high where I taught. The teachers were talking about a young girl who refused to remove her long coat even though it was very hot both inside and outside the school building. I wondered why a girl might find it hard to let go . . . of a coat . . . or perhaps something deeper. That girl became Jesse.

After a time, I realized the stories fit together, but something was not working. Why was Jesse the way she was—somewhat isolated and bereft of imagination? For example, she looked at the moon and saw it as a barren, vacant place. Her older friend, Roxanne, saw it as magic. I could not figure out Jesse’s problem. I heard a writer say to write about your deepest pain, the thing you could never tell anyone. I searched within myself and found a deep buried secret. That became Jesse’s secret, the thing she could never tell anyone. I let my own emotional “fuel” drive the story, the longing, the loss and the final emerging into a world where imagination can remember the past.

El Space: For those of you who are curious, here is the synopsis of Under the Mermaid Angel:

Thirteen-year-old Jesse leads a pretty boring life in just about the most boring place in the universe — otherwise known as Ida, Texas. She cannot forget the death of her baby brother seven years ago, and how she just couldn’t pray for him when he was sick. She never talks about it though, not even to her best friend, which is something she doesn’t have, anyway. But all that changes when Roxanne moves into the trailer next door. Thirty years old, with her fake fur coat, wild red hair, and romantic notions, Roxanne is a revelation to Jesse. Why has she moved to Ida, of all places? Their growing friendship will change Jesse’s life, giving her back a vision of hope beyond the mundane world around her.

Martha, have you noticed a theme in your writing? If so, how does it play out in Under the Mermaid Angel, Matchit, and Angels on the Roof?
Martha: I suppose all of my books have themes of loss, of love and friendship, of starting over. Jesse has the “hidden” loss of her baby brother which is fueled by guilt. Her friend, Roxanne, is kind of a flawed guide, leading Jesse into a better future. Like a female Moses, or a teacher, or parent, or any other kind of leader, it is a future that she, Roxanne, cannot enter herself. In the book Matchit, Matchit, the bad luck boy who got his name from his father’s good luck in a poker game, too has loss. He finds himself living for a time in a junkyard. Even in the junkyards of our lives, we can discover goodness. We may have to go back into a flawed life, but we can enter a future armed with treasures that give us a new start. Shelby, in Angels on the Roof, feels the loss of a father. She is disgusted with what she sees as a loony mother, who is obsessed with the artist Georgia O’Keeffe. It takes a while and a guide in an old woman to help Shelby uncover a truth that reveals her mother’s love.

El Space: What excites you about middle grade fiction?
Martha: I do not have anything wise to say about middle grade fiction. I just like being on that bridge. The middle grade self inside of me feels alive and real. It’s about getting in touch with the deepest roots of ourselves where life feels most raw and painful and at the same time, most hopeful.

El Space: What advice do you have to help fiction writers step up their game?
Martha: A writer once told me to “write what you can write.” I think there is truth in this.

Thanks, Martha, for being my guest! Thanks also to everyone who stopped by to read this interview. I read and loved Under the Mermaid Angel (Laurel-Leaf Books), and I want someone to have a chance to get this book. So, here’s what I’m gonna do: I’m giving away a $15 Amazon gift card to a commenter who must agree to purchase this book. And yes, you must be a follower or a regular commenter of this blog. So, folks, the comment lines are now open.

UPDATE: Since I have two giveaways this week, I will announce both winners on Friday.

Palo Duro Canyon photo from tpwd.state.tx.us. Sunflower from Wikipedia.

A Writer’s Process (9)

And now from the ridiculous (see last post) to the sublime. Today on the blog is the chic and sensational Sandra Nickel, another good friend from VCFA. Get out your magnifying glass and your deerstalker, ’cause we’re talking about mysteries and ghosts. Mwahahahahahaha!!!!

Sandra at Shakespeare & Co

Sandra at Shakespeare and Company in Paris

El Space: Please share a few facts about yourself.
Sandra: I like to think that my writing is the reason my husband fell in love with me. Friends wanted to set us up, but he was living in Moscow, and I was living in New York, so I sent him an email every other day for three months until he was so intrigued, he hopped on a plane to New York so we could meet and have dinner. We did have that dinner, and I have lived a surprisingly European life ever since—two-and-a-half years in Moscow, four years in Paris, and now Switzerland. All because of those notes I wrote. The power of writing. See what it can do?

El Space: Wow! You must have sent some amazing email! Where is your writing taking you now?
Sandra: I’m working on my first middle grade novel, Saving St. Martha’s, a mystery set in a Swiss boarding school. A sort of Nancy Drew meets the first Harry Potter. I just received my critique group’s last comments, so I’m revising.

El Space: Please tell us about it.
Sandra: The heart of the story revolves around two twelve-year-old girls. Lorna is all logic, and Jeannette all mystical ideas, but when their parents ship them off to St. Martha’s to get rid of them, they become best friends; the school, their sanctuary; and Martha, the ghost of the former headmistress, their protector.

But the school is in trouble. Its old abbey is falling apart and the school is in terrible debt. A prized painting—the last gift from the school’s patroness—was never found. And worse, the girls discover that the hard-hearted Corbett Rast and his bank are going to take the abbey and shut down the school unless St. Martha’s comes up with $1,000,000 in 10 days. The girls and Martha vow to find the long-lost painting. But Corbett Rast wants it too . . . and will stop at nothing to get his hands on it.

Martha, the ghost, is quite snarky, so the story is fun—part mystery/part boarding school story, and a lot about friendship. The great news is that Saving St. Martha‘s has had a nice reception so far. It was named as a finalist for the Katherine Paterson Prize and Hunger Mountain selected the first two chapters to be published in its upcoming “Mentors & Tormentors” issue.

El Space: That’s awesome! What inspired you to write Saving St. Martha’s?
Sandra: A couple of things, really. First came the setting. My daughter used to go to school in this truly amazing place—a Swiss chalet that had been built for the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris and then taken apart and rebuilt piece by piece on a hill above Lake Geneva. The chalet is all dark wood and tall, sloping roofs, and inside there is this gorgeous staircase worn smooth and glossy from all the girls that have run up and down it. The moment I saw that chalet, I wished I had gone to school there and knew it would be the perfect setting for a middle grade story.

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Sandra and her daughter at the chalet that inspired Saving St. Martha’s

At this same time, my daughter and her best friend were so taken with mysteries and hidden treasures, they formed their own two-member club, a sort of private detective agency that solved the small and large mysteries around them. I put the school together with their private detective firm, a hidden treasure, a mystery, and came up with Saving St. Martha’s.

El Space: What drew you to write for the middle grade audience?
Sandra: Well . . . I wasn’t drawn to write middle grade. Not really. That whole story of what inspired me to write Saving St. Martha’s was a someday, down-the-road sort of inspiration. A long, long way down the road. I could imagine writing for young adults—and I did—and I could imagine trying my hand at picture books—and I did. But middle grade? There was something eminently frightening about it. My own middle grade years hadn’t been wildly happy, and I had clouded over my memories to the point of remembering very little. How was I to write for an audience living out the years I felt least connected to?

But then, I was accepted into the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and someone—I don’t remember exactly who—tossed down the gauntlet of: “Why don’t you try writing a middle grade?” So, I did, mostly because I like to pretend I’m not scared of anything, other than heights and mice. I went through hypnosis to reconnect to my middle grade years. I hung out with middle grade kids. I read any and every middle grade book recommended to me. I wrote. And what fun it all has been!

El Space: Sounds like you were well prepared. What was the most challenging aspect of writing a mystery?
Sandra: In a way, mysteries are easier to write than other stories, because the broad arc of the story is already there. You set up the mystery, and then the mystery must be solved. Easy, right? The problem is that the small arcs that make up that broader arc can be tricky. New mystery writers—and this was certainly true for me—often believe they must hide the hints and clues and truth from the reader. But the opposite is true.

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Mystery writers must reveal every detail for the reader, but then use sleight of hand, distraction, or an unreliable character to make the truth difficult to discern. This is the tricky part, where mystery writers strive to hit the sweet spot of revealing enough, yet not too much. For this, having a critique group or beta readers is essential, since they are coming to the story for the first time. You want them intrigued, but not confused; you want them to have just enough information to keep reading, but not so much that they put down the book because they’ve already figured it all out.

El Space: What authors inspired you when you were growing up? Which inspire you now?
Sandra: There were so very many who inspired me. I was a big reader! But since we have been talking about middle grade, let me say: E. L. Konigsburg, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Roald Dahl, Louise Fitzhugh, Norton Juster, Madeleine L’Engle, and C.S. Lewis. As for now, this blog isn’t long enough to name them all. But I guess I can say: Ditto for all the above, and add a few of my “new” discoveries: Kate DiCamillo, Katherine Paterson, Louis Sachar, David Almond, and Grace Lin.

Some Middle Grade Books That Have Inspired Me

Books that inspire Sandra

El Space: Do you stick to one project or work on more than one? What tools are helpful?
Sandra: I’m an immersion writer. I absolutely love submersing myself completely in one story-world at a time. That’s not always practical, however. Right now, in addition to Saving St. Martha’s, I’m working on a young adult Gothic ghost story and a storyteller’s poem about a female Paul Revere. When I need to quickly switch from one story to another, the best tool I have found is to freewrite my way into a character’s world. I start by having the character dress herself, noting every detail from the scratch of her wool skirt, to the cut of her socks’ elastic into her calves, then move onto other details like the woody-lead smell of her pencil and the squeal of a violin in the room next door. Five minutes of these kinds of specifics are enough. The wormhole is created, and just like that, I’m pulled from one story-world into the other and am ready to write.

Sorry, that about wraps it up! Thanks, Sandra, for being such a great guest!

If you have questions for Sandra about her book or her process, please comment below.

Magnifying glass from trenchesofdiscovery.blogspot.com.

Write from the Heart

crossroadEver find yourself at a crossroads? Sure you have. I didn’t have to ask. (Silly me.) But I don’t mean the literal fork in the road you reach by car, bike, or on foot. I mean the point where life could go in one direction or another.

I’m at a crossroads now as I contemplate my writing thus far and current publishing trends.

twilight-coverBack when the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer had become the in thing and I’d heard that agents and editors searched for books of that ilk, I decided to jump on the bandwagon and write a young adult vampire novel. After all, I’d read several. I could do this, right? Well, after four dismal pages and no discernible plot—just a scene in which the characters sat on a couch watching a horror movie for some reason—I called it quits. My heart simply wasn’t it in.

200px-Hunger_gamesAnd when Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy hit the bestseller lists, I considered revamping my stalled science fiction novel into a dystopian novel. Sure, my plot was full of holes and my system of government threadbare, but I just needed to work harder at ironing out the kinks. Or so I thought. I lasted until page 107 before putting it aside. Couldn’t make the plot work. Again, my heart wasn’t in it.

So where is my heart? Where it always has been: tucked away in a fantasy land sprinkled with magic and populated by elves, dragons, and quirky humans. I love a fantasy world steeped in mythology and dripping with tropes. I have six fantasy novels in various states: two complete; four others in the works.

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Yet when I hear that more and more humorous, contemporary middle grade books (which I enjoy) are being acquired at publishing houses, I have to ask myself: Write to the trend or not?

There are all sorts of practical reasons for doing so—lucrative ones. Yet as I consider ideas for crafting a humorous, middle grade story, the only ideas that come to mind are those that will mean yet more high fantasy novels.

Must I abandon my elves to go trendy?

9781582970523_p0_v1_s260x420A quote from a craft book by Nancy Lamb helped me gain perspective:

Produce the best story you can. Write it, craft it, rewrite it, hone it, edit it and love it. (25)

“Love it.” That’s the key. Do I love the world I developed and the characters that populate it? Yes. Am I producing the best stories I can? I think so. And judging by the abandoned novels versus the finished novels on my computer, getting to the finish line on a novel is not as much of a hurdle when I’m writing from the heart.

So, I think I’ll keep going in the direction that I’m already going. An enchanted forest waits up ahead.

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Do you write to trends? I’d love to hear about that. Are you also at a crossroads? What brought you to this point? Where does your heart lie?

Lamb, Nancy. The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 2001. Print.

Images from amersrour.blog.com, sodahead.com, and freewallpapers4desktop.com.

Check This Out: Magic Marks the Spot (b)

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Arr, mateys! Caroline Carlson, Scourge o’ the Seven Seas, is back to answer more of me questions. Strap on yer cutlasses or hoist yerselves a tankard o’ grog and give a listen. Mind the parrot!

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Bear this in mind: This be part 2 of our chat about Caroline’s book, Magic Marks the Spot, book 1 of The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates trilogy. Ye can find part 1 here if ye missed it.

Magic Marks the Spot sails into port on September 10.

Later, I’ll announce the treasure that awaits one o’ ye. . . . Avast! I see ye trying to skip ahead. Heave to there! Wait for it or walk the plank!

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El Space: Why’d ye choose to write about scallywags like pirates?
Caroline: I have always loved pirates—and I should mention here that I’m referring specifically to the grog-swilling, treasure-burying, hook-wielding pirates of literary and cinematic tradition rather than real-life pirates, who were (and are) nothing like the pirates of popular culture. I think there’s something about this pop culture idea of piracy that’s very appealing, especially to kids—setting out in search of adventure and fortune, ignoring society’s rules, and never having to do your homework.

El Space: A fine life, if ye ask me! (Uh, but kids, stay in school.)
Caroline: I’d wanted to write a story about a pirate treasure hunt for ages, and when I visited the medieval Swedish city of Visby, which was once a pirate stronghold, I knew I’d found the perfect setting for my story. Gunpowder Island, the pirate stronghold in Magic Marks the Spot, is loosely modeled on Visby, though it’s really become its own place at this point.

It didn’t take long after that for me to decide that the heroine of this story should be a girl who dreams of being a pirate. Since characters can’t always get what they want, however, I had to come up with a way to keep my pirate girl from achieving her dream. I decided to give her the opposite of what she longed for: a stint at a terribly proper finishing school.

El Space: Yer a clever one and no mistake. How did ye come up with a talking gargoyle?
Caroline: He made his first appearance in my life during my senior year of high school, when he was a minor character in a story I was writing. The story wasn’t all that memorable, but the gargoyle was—he liked to read romantic tales of adventure on the high seas, and he stayed in the back of my mind for years.

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A gargoyle in Visby, Sweden. Photo from Wikipedia.

When I started writing Magic Marks the Spot, I realized that I needed someone for my protagonist, Hilary, to talk to in the first chapter as she prepared to go to finishing school. Who would be a better conversation partner than the gargoyle? So I put him over Hilary’s bedroom door and let them chat. Originally, I thought the gargoyle would stay behind and Hilary would recount her adventures to him at the end of the book, but by the time I’d finished writing that first chapter, I’d fallen utterly in love with the gargoyle. I couldn’t bear to stop writing about him! So he went off in Hilary’s luggage, and now he’s in nearly every scene in the book.

El Space: Arr! Glad I am that he is! Since yer character came into yer life when ye were a teen, what advice would ye offer a young writer?
Caroline: Everyone tells young writers to read as much as they can, and that’s great advice, so I’ll say that too. Read! And write as often as you can—school assignments, journal entries, letters, emails, blog posts—but don’t get discouraged if you can’t sit down and write out an entire story just yet. The important thing is to practice.

My biggest piece of advice, though, is to learn as much as you can about everything else in the world that’s interesting to you and that has nothing to do with being a writer. Find out about what’s going on in your town, in your country, and in the rest of the world. Learn a little bit about astronomy, archaeology, animals, architecture, archery, or anything else that’s interesting to you. Visit new places if you can, or take some time to explore your own neighborhood. Learn to play a sport or cook something delicious. All of the new things you learn will be your story fuel. They’ll get jumbled together in your brain, and months or years later, they’ll turn into a great idea for a book.

Sage words! A fine time I’ve had jawing with ye, Caroline! Yer welcome aboard the blog anytime!

For those of ye who signed on to this voyage, if ye haven’t clicked on the links below to preorder Caroline’s book, ye can do so now. And no, ye won’t be made to walk the plank if ye don’t!

Amazon
Barnes and Noble
Powell’s Books
Anderson Bookshop

SPECIAL GIVEAWAY: One of you who comments below will win a $15 gift card (ecard) to Amazon so that you can preorder Caroline’s book. Ye read that right!!! A $15 ecard!

Just comment and ye’ll be entered in the drawing! Of course, this be the honor system, so I won’t be looking over yer shoulder nor can I make ye walk the plank if ye sneak and order something else. But this card is for a preorder of Magic Marks the Spot. The winner will be announced on Sunday. Winners of previous giveaways are not eligible for this drawing. Gives others a chance, ye understand?

Thanks for sailing with us!
Please note: This offer is for today ONLY.

parrotAuthor photo by Amy Rose Capetta. Pirate images from ewallpapers.eu. Parrot from animalinformations.blogspot.com.