Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"Suddenly" is Cheating

My critique group met last night, and I just have to say: I love these ladies. Not only am I getting to read their awesome stories and receiving valuable feedback on mine, I'm also learning from their personal experiences.

For example, Lori and Gwen attended a writing retreat a few weeks ago with Arthur Levine. Yes, I bow down in their presence. They have met God :) One of the things he pointed out in everybody's manuscript is the dreaded, "So you see Bob..." It's the part of the story where the main character overhears someone telling some vital information. We all laughed, but we've all done it. Not good. We have to find better ways to write the story.

Val pointed out a section of my manuscript where I told instead of showed. The sentence read:
Gilbert lifted his leg to stomp on the boulder when suddenly it transformed into a man, a very litle man, who raised his head and reached out to grab Gilbert's leg.
"Suddenly is cheating," she said. "I want to see this." Good point. I'll be working on that today. Kim and Lori pointed out an area where the characters should have been scared, but they take it all in stride. Well, duh. Of course! Why didn't I see that?

I started blogging just over a year ago. And I remember reading about people in critique groups and wishing I had that and wondering how to find a group to join. I had false starts and I've had wonderful individual critiques from other people. But I feel so lucky to have found these amazing writers in my group. Being able to hash out ideas, find the weak spots in my writing and hang out with a fun bunch of people has to be one of the best parts of this journey so far.

And I'm so glad they won't let me cheat :)

Monday, September 28, 2009

Inspiration on a Monday

Everyone told him he was crazy.

But William Kamkwamba had a dream. He believed he could make a difference for his family and his village.

At 14 he dropped out of school because his parents couldn't afford the $80/year fee. But he still loved to learn. He borrowed books from the local library and just from the pictures (he couldn't read English!) taught himself how to build a windmill. Using scraps from the village - a tractor fan, a discarded bicycle wheel - he built a windmill that powered a radio and a light bulb.

He now has four windmills that provide electricity for families and pump water to irrigate their fields. His memoir is being published this fall.

Watch this and be inspired.

Friday, September 25, 2009


DriveSavers rescued my drive.

I did not get back all the files, but most of them are there. My manuscripts, my son's manuscripts, most of my photos, my email messages.

I'm feeling very thankful. Poor, but thankful.

Happy weekend =D

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Challenge of a Different Kind

When I was in 6th Grade, our teacher assigned the class "Are You There God? It's me, Margaret." I went to a parochial school. This did not sit well with a number of parents, including my own. They launched a complaint and tried to have the book removed from our reading list. My teacher, Mrs. Coffey, left the book on the list, but offered alternatives for kids with parents who absolutely refused to let them read the book.

What my parents didn't realize is that I'd already read the book the year before. It was on the shelves of our 5th grade library. Not that I told them.

I learned two things from the experience: 1) Most parents were hopelessly out of touch and had no clue what their kids were reading, and 2) My teachers were cooler than I thought.

September 26 – October 3, 2009 is Banned Books Week. Laurie Halse Anderson knows a thing or two about censorship. She has a great response to some of the schools that have challenged her books. I went to the Banned Books Website and looked over the lists of books that have been challenged over the last two decades. Some titles were expected. Others were a complete surprise. Not only have I bought banned books and personally enjoyed them, I’ve read many of them to my kids. The horror!

Included on the lists:

Captain Underpants Series, by Dav Pilkey
Reasons: anti-family content, being unsuited to age group and violence
Would you believe this series has made the top 10 list in 2002, 2004 and 2005??

Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling
Reasons: occult/satanism and violence

Bridge to Terebithia
, by Katherine Paterson
Reason: occult/satanism and offensive language

The Witches, by Roald Dahl
A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle
James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl
The Stupids series, by Harry Allard
Where’s Waldo?, by Martin Hanford

Can someone please explain why Where’s Waldo is on this list? Seriously, I don’t get why any of these books would be banned, but Where’s Waldo? Come on!

These are just the banned books that I’ve read to one or both of my children. You can find more at the ALA Website under Banned & Challenged Books.

I think parents have a right to guide the choices their children make. They don't have a right to mandate those choices to the world at large. The funny thing is, if they actually read some of the books they're challenging, they might be surprised to find that the books have something valuable to say.

The number one banned book for the last four years?
And Tango Makes Three.

We'll be reading it next week to celebrate. What about you?

BTW: I found out why Where's Waldo? was banned: The original 1987 book had a topless sunbather exposing a breast. LMAO! Considering how small the pictures are, you'd have to look pretty hard to find it. Are people really offended by this?! Here's an article with a blowup of the wardrobe malfunction :)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Author Spotlight on: Laurel Snyder

Some people have to write. They start as children and they never stop. Laurel Snyder is one of those people.

Starting with an anthology in 2006 called,Half/Life: Jew-ish Tales from Interfaith Homes, Snyder has had at least one book come out every year. Her book of poetry, The Myth of the Simple Machines, was published in 2007. A picture book, Inside the Slidy Diner, came out the following year. Her first novel for children, Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains, was recognized as a 2008 Smithsonian Notable Book, and was also nominated for a Cybil (Children’s and Young Adult Bloggers Awards). Her newest book, Any Which Wall, came out in May and was listed as a Junior Library Guild selection.

After reading Any Which Wall earlier this summer, I knew I wanted to "talk" to Laurel. While the book is full of magic and adventure, it takes place in the real world. And even though the story is current, it reads like a instant classic, the kind you want to lay in the grass and spend the afternoon with.

The best part? Laurel is a slush pile success story. Read on to find out how genres are like dancing, imitation is a conversation and why Batman books might be in her pile!

My inlaws are from Iowa (and I’ve visited a few times myself!) so when I saw that your new book ANY WHICH WALL takes place there, I had to read it. What made you decide to set the story in Iowa?
Iowa isn't really my home state, but it's my adopted home state, since I lived there for 7 years, and my husband is from there. I visit often.

Basically, Iowa (and Iowa City in particular) is just a perfect kind of place for an adventure. It's big and open and green and safe-but-wild. Kids nowadays read all these tales of free-range-kids who roam and ramble, but in fact many kids don't get to have that sort of wild-adventure-summertime anymore. Certainly they don't here in Atlanta. I lived in Iowa for seven years, and I almost never locked my front door there. So it seemed more likely that in Iowa, my characters might actually be allowed to ride their bikes to the library. It's also just a beautifu wonderful town, and I wanted to pay it tribute.

I grew up in Ohio and we actually had a cornfield on part of our 40 acres. When the kids go down a row in search of adventure, I could absolutely remember doing this as a child. Only I wasn’t lucky enough to find a magic wall! This story is so unique in how they find and use the magic. How did you come up with the idea?
I think it's mostly just Iowa memories--of long drives and walks down B roads--blended together with the books of Edward Eager. I always loved how in Eager's books the magic had RULES. So I wanted a device with guidelines. But I think that the wall itself came from my memories of Jerusalem. My wall isn't the first wall anyone ever touched with a hand and whispered to, you know?

I know you’re a huge Edward Eager fan, but there’s a scene near the end of ANY WHICH WALL that reminded me of the end of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." How much do you think we as writers are influenced by what has been written before, especially when it comes to the “rules” of magic?
I can't speak to anyone else's writing. Maybe some people are wholly imaginative. But I'm an imitative sort of writer. My background is in poetry, and as a poet, I've always seen my writing as a conversation with the writers of the past. I'm almost writing TO them. I think it's interesting to start with another person's work, and attempt to translate it into my own voice, or update it, or give it a new slant. I am what I eat, you know? And there are so many moments when I catch myself sounding like Lewis or Dahl or Streatfield or Travers or Thurber. In some ways, those are the best moments! I think it makes more sense to own that, play with it, challenge it, than to avoid it.

You’ve managed to bridge several genres with a picture book, MG fiction and adult nonfiction. How did you manage to do so much genre-hopping?
People always ask that, and it makes me want to turn around and ask, "Why don't YOU dabble?" I guess, to me, it feels weird and unnatural to me to "pick" a genre. I'm just interested in language, and the language chooses its best form. Don't you find that if you go dancing one night, you want to stay home the next? Each genre feels like a kind of relief from the others. Right now, having finished my next novel, I'm working on poems. It uses a different part of my brain...

Do you plan to add YA to the list?
Heh. Nobody ever asks THAT! The answer is that of all the genres, YA appeals the least to me as a writer. I think I'm more likely to try an adult novel than a YA novel. My next book, the one I'll start later this fall, is intended for a slightly older reader. But it isn't YA. No kissing. No internal drama. And there's a big magical box of wishes in it. I love watching kids explore, attempt to understand the big world beyond them. YA tends to be mostly inward-looking. I love to read books like that, but I don't think that sort of writing is my strength. Not yet, anyway... One never knows.

What genre is your favorite to write? To read?
I'm a poet at heart. I'll always think in poems, I think. I love the puzzle of a poem, and the revsion process, that tightening and tweaking. Though with each novel, I find the logic-problem of prose more interesting.

As a reader I'm all over the place. I can't choose a genre to read. A really sublime adult novel is probably most consuming. I can spend an entire day in bed with Wallace Stegner. But the most important lines, the lines that roam my brain, are poetry. And the books I return to most often are middle grade books.

Besides Edward Eager (who of course is brilliant!) who are some of the authors you enjoy reading?
All the ones I named above, the classics of my own childhood. Nesbit and Dahl and McDonald and Enright and Konigsberg and Voight and so on... but there are some current authors who blow me away too. Victoria Forrester and Ellen Potter and Polly Horvath spring to mind. And I'm as blown away by Rebecca Stead as everyone else is. She's terrific.

One week during #kidlitchat we were discussing how you know when you’re done editing a book and your response cracked me up: “I’m never done, never. I still make changes when I do reading of a published book. I edit in red pen and read aloud that version.” Care to elaborate now that you can use more than 140 characters?
Heh. I don't think I'm the only one. It's hard to translate the written word into a public reading sometimes, and so I'll find myself shortening long sections of exposition when the crowd seems restless, or choosing more exciting language. Then, later, I'll go back and think, "Darn it! Why didn't I think of that BEFORE we sent it to the copyeditor." With poetry this is even more true. Poems from a published book will later be anthologized or published in a magazine, and I'll revise the poem send them a newer draft than was in the book. I did this just yesterday! Changed the title of a published poem, to submit to an anthology of new Jewish poetry.

Those of us who are still unpublished always want to know this: How long did it take for you to get your first book published and how did you get your foot in the door?
From the day I started writing? Or from the day I finished a book? I've been writing since 4th grade. I took my first workshop class when I was 15. I went to college and grad school in creative writing. The first book I finished was a book of poems called "The Girl in the Flattened World." It was published 7 years later under the title, "Myth of the Simple Machines." My first novel was finished in 2002 I think, and it pubbed five years later, after several rounds of on-spec revisions, and maybe thirty rejections. I'm just guessing. The nice part of the story is that it was pulled from slush, as was my picture book. The part of the story people probably don't want to hear is that I'm not sure if the editor would have paid so much attention to my query if I didn't have an MFA. But I didn't have an "in" or anything. I submitted the book cold, to a complete stranger, who wrote me a long letter back. So that CAN happen. I think a strong standout query goes a long way.

What are you working on right now?
I just handed in the next novel. It's called Penny Dreadful, and it'll be out next fall. I have a picture book coming out about the same time, called Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to Be Kosher.

I know there are some children’s books out there that you, uh, really don’t like :) What do you look for in books that you read to your own kids?
For my kids? For my KIDS I read anything they want to read. I really think the best book for any person at any time is the book they most want to read. It's different when you're in school, and you're "studying" something. But for-pleasure reading should be just that. I HATE that my son wants to get "Batman books" at the library, instead of, say, Esio Trot. But I want him to read whatever makes him a reader.

That said, in picture books I look for something where the language is doing something fresh and funny. I love when they memorize a book without meaning to. Good examples of this are the Donut Chef and the Elephant Wish. They make us all happy.

Learn more about Laurel at her website:

Friday, September 18, 2009

Believing in Magic

My daughter spent yesterday afternoon looking for secret portals.

Her 2nd grade teacher is reading "The Doll People" to the class. (My 9-year-old boy also highly recommends this series--he read it in 3rd grade.) Jasmine is just sure she'll find an adventure if only I'll help her remove the grate to the heating vent so she can crawl inside.

I love when a story can capture the imagination so completely. Do you remember as a child expecting magic and mystery around every corner? Trying to sneak back into your room to see if the toys were talking about you while you were gone? Jumping from the roof with your favorite blanket and trying to fly like Underdog? Okay, maybe that one was just me.

I still believe in magic. I write about it every day. I feel it sometimes when I'm around other creative people. I see it in beaming faces and sparkly eyes.

What books or life experiences have taught you to believe in magic?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Afternoon at Hendry's

September should really petition to be part of summer. The days are still warm, the Pacific Ocean has finally reached a tolerable temperature and the tourist crowds have thinned out. It's my favorite month to spend time at the beach.

Today after school we loaded the boogie boards and the kids and headed down to Hendry's in Santa Barbara. Barely more than a cove, you can't even see the sand as you drive by on Cliff Drive. But the sun always shines warmly here and with a beach side cafe, showers and passable bathrooms, it's a great place to spend the afternoon. Officially known as Arroyo Burro Beach, Hendry's is owned by Santa Barbara County. So unlike state beaches, you don't have to pay to park and Ah-nuld can't threaten to close it down.

I don't know about you, but I can never be depressed or angry when I'm at the beach. There's something about the sound of the waves pounding the shore that calms my soul. I always feel like I'm on vacation, even if it's just for a few hours. I love to see my kids ride the waves, smell the salt in the air, watch the swells as they break into whitewater.

The sun moves faster when it reaches the horizon. Watching it slip beneath the waves, feeling the chill as it pulls the warmth with it, reminds us that summer is on it's way out. An afternoon of playing in the waves makes for two tired but happy children and two relaxed and happy parents.

The best things in life really are free.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Five Things I've Learned since Killing My Hard Drive


At this point there has been no progress with my hard drive. But I'm not the type of person to dwell on a problem. You just have to make the best of things and move forward, right?

I've installed a new hard drive in my computer, because strangely enough, the laptop runs perfectly fine; only the drive was damaged. I spent Sunday and today reloading software and trying to finish up a design project for a client. I grabbed a jump drive to copy some files from my husband's computer and had a lovely surprise: a copy of my novel, Secret of Undine, from early August.

I almost cried.

Even though I was trying to move on, the horror of losing my book was eating away at me in the background. I'd made changes since August, but I thought the most recent version I had saved was much older. It totally made my day to find that file!

So what have I learned about writing?
  1. Bad things happen to good people. You've heard it before but sometimes it's hard to remember. Much as you love these characters you've created, you can't protect them. They have to suffer pain, sometimes a lot of pain. Especially because sometimes...
  2. A desperate situation can open up a new direction. Not only do you discover what your character is made of, you get to try out new possibilities that you may never have considered otherwise. Which leads me to...
  3. Consider more than one option. And don't just consider it. Follow through with it. Write a few scenes or a chapter to see where it leads. You may not use it, or it might provide the hook that was missing. Since I thought I'd lost everything, I started jotting down notes for a new book. And that's not a bad thing :)
  4. Look for the silver lining. Every story has one whether it's fiction or your life. Even if you're not writing a completely happy ending, hope is the stuff that dreams are made of. All you need is a glimmer.
  5. Get it down and back it up. I now have a 500 GB external drive to back up everything. And even though there isn't much on my laptop right now, it's backed up. Call me paranoid. Whatever. I'm NEVER going to torture myself this way again. Getting your story down is only part of the answer. Save it somewhere, more than one somewhere!
I guess these weren't things that I learned. More like things that I needed to be reminded of. Hopefully my folly will save you some heartache down the road. If your files aren't backed up, DO IT NOW! Stop reading right now and go back up everything on your hard drive. Believe me, you'll be happy you did.

And one last word of advice: if you're going to drop your laptop, do it when the computer is off. Apparently I wouldn't have damaged the hard drive as much if it was sleeping or off. If only I'd known...

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Call Me Butterfingers

My family doesn't blink when they hear crashing sounds from the kitchen. I drop and break things on a regular basis. If I could go three weeks without breaking a glass or chipping a plate, it would be a record.

So really, it was only a matter of time for my laptop. I've had it for two years, it has been my favorite computer ever. I have backed files off from time to time, but not as regularly as I should.

I was laying in bed sending some emails after the kids went to school, feeling tired, jaw still aching from the wisdom teeth. I reached over to put my MacBook on the nightstand and pulled my hand away too soon. It fell in slow motion. I was helpless to stop it. Typing these words steals my breath away again.

Not only does it have all my writing and graphic design files, it has all my digital photos of the children, a video I was working on from a family reunion, research, emails, address book, checkbook (!) -- my life for the last two years is on that computer!

So here I am on my husband's laptop, knowing he'll want it back any minute. Friday morning I'll be driving down to Santa Barbara, praying that the Mac Mechanics can recover my files. The programs I can reload, but the files that exist no where else in the world, I hope they can pull them from that drive for me.

Cross your fingers...

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Do Wisdom Teeth Make You Wise?

Dentists terrify me. With their gloved hands and gleaming instruments of torture, I try to stay clear of them.

But when one of my wisdom teeth started to crumble, I knew I had to do something. That was two years ago. TWO YEARS. I was starting to feel pain and I do not like pain, especially when it prevents me from eating food I like.

I called yesterday about getting the tooth removed. I went in this morning and had all four extracted. Yes, you read that right. All four teeth removed. And where, you ask, is the wisdom in that?

Well, it's all over at once. I don't have to agonize about doing the others down the road, because they were going to have to be done at some point. Now as I lay here biting down on bloody gauze, wondering when I will regain feeling in my tongue and cheeks, I'm thinking I could have held out a little longer. Maybe.

My daughter asked if I would still be smart without my wisdom teeth. Good question. I don't know the answer. I told her to let me know in a few weeks.

So before I completely fade into a Vicodin induced haze, I leave you with this, my impression of dentists everywhere.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A Library Without Books

Can you imagine a library without books?

Apparently one prep school in the Boston area thinks they can be cutting edge by getting rid of the 20,000 books in their library and replacing them with 18 electronic readers (Kindle and Sony), 3 flat screen tvs connected to the internet and a coffee shop where the reference desk used to be. Excuse me for being antiquated, but this vision of the future is freaking me out.

I'm glad my kids don't go to school there.

Welcome to the Future Library

Friday, September 4, 2009

Just Say the Word

As a child I loved to read the dictionary. My family had this ginormous Webster's that weighed probably 10 pounds or more. It smelled of dust and old paper, and the pages were thin, like the ones in my grandmother's bible. Each letter was marked by a rounded indentation on the side and in the back were translations of common words in other languages.

I kept the dictionary under my bed. On Saturday afternoons when there wasn't anything else to do, I'd drag it out and start looking up words. What can I family didn't always have the most exciting weekend plans! I'd start out trying to find every bad word I could think of. Some were in there (who knew--a bitch is a female dog!), most weren't. But from there I'd just start reading the pages at random. And if I didn't understand a word in a definition, I'd look it up. I would literally spend hours with this dictionary, soaking up all the words and their meanings.

I'll be the first to admit that it's weird. In fact, most people don't even know this about me so if you could keep it between us, I'd really appreciate it ;D I still love words and word games. Just ask my kids: favorite games on the iPod Touch? Twisty Text, Scramble and ShakeSpell.

So when a note went out on the Central Coast listserv about saving the words, I had to check it out. According to, 90 percent of everything we write uses only 7,000 words. (If you've been reading my posts for a while, you probably know my ducinarious favorites!) As a result, hundreds of words are dropped from dictionaries every year.

Well, I decided to use a few succisive moments to adopt some words that have fallen out of use. I've never been an inveteratist and being sevidical is not my style, so I tried to choose words that wouldn't make me seem too acrasial. My husband thinks I'm nuts, but he's too squiriferous to say a word.

Forty-five minutes later, I realized I'm still the same nerdy girl who loves to get lost in words. I adopted seven words, and I'll try to use them properly. If you enjoy words, check out the site. And hopefully, you won't pudify your friends :D

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

And on Tuesday I Read...

..."Catching Fire," of course. I've been SO looking forward to this book coming out! I made sure the house was relatively clean, made simple dinner plans and got myself to a stopping point on the graphic design projects I'm working on. All so I could spend the day reading this book.

I tend to look at books suspiciously when they have a lot of hype attached. I'm probably the last person on the planet who hasn't read a "Twilight" book =) And I held out on "The Hunger Games" too, until the ARC literally landed in my lap. Man, was I sucked in!

When I got to the Book Loft this morning and didn't see "Catching Fire" right away I almost cried. Literally. I didn't want to lose precious reading time driving 30 minutes to Santa Barbara to get a copy!

Turns out, they just hadn't put it on the shelves yet. Crazy, I know. Here I was so caught up thinking this is THE book of the day, but at my indie, it was just another book.

So how was it? Beyond my expectations good. Like all her other books, it lingers with me. I dreamed about it, woke up still thinking about it. As soon as I finished reading I had to go to Elizabeth Law's "We've read Catching Fire and we need to Discuss!" discussion board and read all the posts.

As a writer, I want to be that good someday. I love to go back and reread scenes from her books, looking at how she pulls me in as a reader. Her language is so spare, her pacing is perfect. She shows us a character with just a few sentences and we know that person. I want to be able to do that. I want my characters to stay with people, to make readers think.

Who are your literary idols? Who makes you want to excel as a writer?
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